Short Cuts - Guilty Pleasures: Day of the Dolphin (1973)

[10 February 2007]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

On an isolated island in the middle of the Caribbean, Dr. Jake Terrell has made a breakthrough in the study of dolphins and interspecies language. His star pupil Fa has not only learned to understand English but he also has a rudimentary ability to speak it. Hoping to avoid exploitation of his special savant sea creatures, he shuns any press and avoids the in-depth inquiries from the Bland Foundation, who is funding his work. But when a seedy reporter named Curtis Mahoney threatens to blow the cover off the experiments, Terrell feels he has no choice but to bring Fa, and his female companion Be, out into the open. The revelation of the mammals’ special skill only makes matters worse, since it turns out that a shadow organization within the government has planted a spy in Terrell’s own staff.

As Fa and Be are being prepared for introduction to the world, they inadvertently become part of a conspiracy to use trained dolphins as assassins. It’s up to Terrrell and his remaining loyal staff, along with an unsuspected ally, to save the salt water sophisticates and prevent the porpoise murder of the President. And without a Jackal in sight, international terrorism has obviously entered a new era. Step aside all you candidates from Manchuria, it’s time for The Day of the Dolphin.

At the time, there was probably no perceived writing/directing team hotter than Mike Nichols and Buck Henry. Their prior two films together (The Graduate and Catch-22) had been embraced as counter culture calling cards, reel responses to bourgeoisie society and the war in Vietnam, respectively. Nichols alone was a wunderkind, having created such additional cinematic benchmarks as the acting triumphs Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Carnal Knowledge. So when Joseph E. Levine came looking to enforce his contract with Nichols (he was required to do one more movie for the producer), the young filmmaker approached his old friend about doing something completely different, something the two had never tried before. And then they went and made this movie instead. Part science fiction, part political thriller, with some ‘Earth First’ environmentalism thrown in for good measure, The Day of the Dolphin became a highly anticipated collaboration between the creative team.

It also complemented the early ‘70s fascination with the future, technology, earth, and the supposedly intelligent sea mammal species. It was considered quite topical, as it was based on an immensely popular bestseller that capitalized on the current craze for studies of dolphin and porpoise behavior. Scientists were, at the time, making advances in the very subject area, both pro (language) and con (mine recovery) the movie addressed. Add the notorious box office sideshow of George C. Scott and his young trophy wife Trish “Who’s Linda McCartney” Van Devere, and it seemed that a can’t-miss combination of talent and material had been discovered. There was no way it could fail. But remember, this is also what Franz Liebkind and Roger De Bris thought about Springtime for Hitler.

Seen in the far more sophisticated light of this new millennium’s mega-technical binary computer complicatedness, this simple underwater weirdness has definitely lost a lot of its sea legs. By today’s standards, The Day of the Dolphin is a goofy premise, made even goofier by the eventual thriller plot and, in the frenzied final moments, is rendered totally and completely into one of the goofiest movies ever made. But this is meant in a good way. Sort of. Like Darwin in SeaQuest DSV or the cyberpunk sea creature in Johnny Mnemonic, the inherent intelligence of the faux Flippers here becomes part of a campy car crash that, while not an all out disaster, plays more like a nonsensical National Geographic Special with ornery Oscar winners.

It’s hard to pinpoint just what does this movie in. Perhaps it’s the notion of the rather barrel-chested and city-slicked C. Scott donning a wet suit and doing the dead man’s float with his creature cast members while he channels Patton’s more “feminine” side. Or how about the substantial lack of lines for any other member of the cast, save for the scene-stealing slimeball Paul Sorvino as the single greasiest black ops agent in the covert government of America. Maybe the rest of the cast was as seemingly pissed as Fritz Weaver, all watching as the blow-holed, fish eating egomaniacs hogged all the single syllabled dialogue? (F.W. would get his revenge though. He went on to act alongside a megalomaniac motherboard in the computer bore Satan’s spawn silliness from 1977 called Demon Seed). Or possibly it was too many days in the tropics, allowing the baking and stroking rays of the Bermuda sun to confuse an otherwise sound and gifted filmmaker and his cinematic choices. Whatever it was, it turned his cautionary tale about tampering in God’s aquatic domain into Hooked on Phonics with Fa and Be.

And yet the movie somehow manages to squeak out an overall entertaining evening at the motion picture aquarium. Nichols has always been a uniquely skilled visual director, and his gorgeous tropical tableaus are wonderful. He does frame the majority of the film in medium two shots, as if to distance his audience from much of the laughable lunacy going on. But that’s only because there’s a lot to loll your head holes over in The Day of the Dolphin. When Georgie C. forces Fa to speak English and request a repast with his Caribbean Queen Be, he initiates the first interspecies booty call, compelling the horny mammal to mouth “Pa. Fa. Want. Be. Now.” Hell, these precognizant porpoises even get all freaked out when some suit suggests there’s a shark in their personal pool (anticipating the reaction to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws by a full two years). There are many scenes of Scottie in short pants, and musical montages of dolphins attempting the Venus Butterfly. By the time we get to the plot to eliminate the President (which comes so completely out of left field you expect Ted Williams to appear chasing after it), we are ready for anything.

But nothing can quite prepare us for the final moments of the movie where the fraught Fa tries to get his portly “Pa” to look back at him, just once more for one last father/fish fin wave. Indeed, the star speak-and-say sea creatures here give better performances than many of their land-lubbing counterparts. The Day of the Dolphin may long be remembered as the first chink in Nichol’s seemingly indestructible suit of creative armor, but all it really represents is a failed experiment in that most difficult of future shock filmmaking: the intelligent animal adventure.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/short-cuts-guilty-pleasures-day-of-the-dolphin-1973/