tongue-tied lightning

Day of the Dolphin (Nichols, 1973)
February 7, 2009, 5:48 PM
Filed under: film


I’ve been on a bit of a Mike Nichols kick lately.  It all started with watching Catch-22 a week or two ago.  Since then I’ve plowed through The Fortune, Carnal Knowledge, and now, Day of the Dolphin. I still may post a review of Carnal Knowledge, and I look forward to rounding off his pre-hiatus work with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? soon.

Which brings us to Day of the Dolphin, this has long been one of my favorite posters.  Yet, I’ve put off watching it, mostly because I couldn’t imagine it living up to that tagline, which to be honest it doesn’t, but what could?  Nonetheless, the participation of George C. Scott and Mike Nichols intrigued me.  The back to back failures of this film and The Fortune led Nichols to take an 8 year break from directing for the screen.  Neither film is great but I don’t think either of them are terrible either.  I didn’t know what to expect with Dolphin, whether it would take itself too seriously or be a Snakes on a Plane type film.  The final product is somewhere in between.

It concerns Dr. Jake Terrell (George C. Scott) training dolphins to speak.  He does this covertly, but when he is in danger of losing his funding he has to reveal what he’s doing.  It gets out to the wrong people and terrorists kidnap two of the dolphins and attempt to train them to assassinate the President.

The film never seems to wander into parody.  Not only does it maintain its serious tone, but it makes the ridiculous plot seem quite believable.  It sometimes resembles an exploitation film, but I think that has more to do with the 70’s aesthetic.  It’s possible they took the film a bit too seriously.  The Buck Henry script doesn’t sparkle with wit like the previous two he wrote for Nichols, The Graduate and Catch-22. However, there is quite a bit more subtext than you would expect from a film about killer dolphins.

Of course, making the dolphins speak humanizes them, and allows the filmmakers to use them to make comments on human nature.  There are the obvious themes about species living in harmony with one another and man meddling with nature.  There is also perhaps  a bit of commentary on the subversive nature of capitalism.

At the end of the day (of the dolphin) this isn’t a film that’s going to win any awards.  However, it wasn’t nearly as ridiculous as I was expecting.  The scenes at the beginning with Scott and the dolphin are quite effective, and when the political thriller plot kicks in, well, it’s not breaking any new ground, but it’s not deficient in that area either.  It’s a Mike Nichols film, so it’s nice to look at, he is always good for interesting shot compositions, and I’ve never seen George C. Scott turn in anything other than a magnetic performance, as is the case here.  Even if the film, and in particular Buck Henry’s script don’t always reward the attraction.


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