The Day of the Dolphin

by Glenn Erickson Mar 28, 2020

They swim, they play, and they talk. They love George C. Scott and call him ‘pa.’ Mike Nichols’ paranoid sci-fi classic combines Lassie Go Home and The Manchurian Candidate. It works up a good guys versus bad guys conspiracy storyline — until the message arrives that what the adorable dolphins Fa and Bee really need, along with the rest of the natural planet, is for us greedy, murderous humans to just Go Away. Buck Henry’s screenplay overcomes aquatic clichés and cutesy animal traditions to come up with a crowd-pleasing winner.

The Day of the Dolphin
KL Studio Classics
1973 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 104 min. / Street Date February 18, 2020 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Paul Sorvino, Fritz Weaver, Jon Korkes, Edward Herrmann, John Dehner, Severn Darden, Elizabeth Wilson.
Cinematography: William A. Fraker
Film Editor: Sam O’Steen
Production Designer: Richard Sylbert
Original Music: Georges Delerue
Written by Buck Henry from a novel Un animal doué de raison by Robert Merle
Produced by Joseph E. Levine, Robert E. Relyea
Directed by
Mike Nichols


Reading the book Helter Skelter way back when, I learned that when the call came for director Roman Polanski to rush back to Hollywood, because something terrible had happened up on Cielo Drive, he was in England writing a screenplay for The Day of the Dolphin. Polanski dropped everything, including the show. Later on, Larry Mirisch told me that his father Walter had the project for a time, and was sorry to lose it. Producer Robert Relyea, frustrated by his efforts to make movies with Steve McQueen, must have been able to find the required big financing. Critics ask why the A+ A-listers Mike Nichols and Buck Henry decided to take this show on.  Maybe because it’s a fascinating movie idea?

My appreciation for Dolphin didn’t come on my first viewing. I enjoyed it but thought it something of a cheat: it began as an intriguing sci-fi story about intelligent animals and then morphed into a far-fetched conspiracy item with assassins, etc. Dolphin slightly precedes the wave of political paranoia that followed in the wake of Watergate (example: The Parallax View). The ‘evil government conspiracy’ presented here has seemingly become the laziest fallback villain in entertainment. When’s the last time we saw depicted a secret government program that wasn’t sinister?  The CDC surely doesn’t publicize everything they do — more power to them.


I now respect The Day of the Dolphin much more; it is thoughtfully worked out and beautifully crafted, even if Buck Henry dismisses it in his interview. Its ecological message isn’t forced or exploitative, as in movies where man’s abuse of the environment motivates exciting monster mutations. Evidence suggests that dolphins may be incredibly intelligent, but in somewhat different ways than humans. George C. Scott’s passionate concern helps sell its message of respect for the living works of creation.

With live wild animal shows (circuses, Sea World) in retreat, the trained dolphins seen here might draw objections. Beware the audience that relates better to their pound rescue dog than to their human neighbors. I’m finding that any movie that depicts animals in jeopardy has an uphill battle with audiences. John Huston’s The Roots of Heaven, a majestic saga about saving elephants, is a tough sell because it’s ‘too depressing.’ We civilized folk don’t mind watching zombies eat people, but depicting a pooch coming to harm now justifies a walk-out, as it’s assumed that the filmmakers are sadists. I’ve received angry notes because I didn’t forewarn a reader that a movie storyline has someone shoot a horse. Dolphin may play like a popcorn movie but its ‘animal jeopardy is in service to a deeper theme. We walk away with a new respect for other life forms, and with the sober message that Modern Man has become a menace to the planet, the enemy of everything natural.

Aided by the luminous cinematography of William Fraker, Mike Nichols lends importance and gravity to what others might see as a pulpy storyline. Intense marine biology researcher Jake Terrell (George C. Scott) and his fellow marine biologists have taught rudimentary human speech to two dolphins, Fa and Bee. Their secret project is violated by outside interests — spy entities represented by slippery intelligence agent Curtis Mahoney (Paul Sorvino). An odd group of men unconcerned with science but ‘associated’ with the foundation that funds Terrell, takes a keen interest in the project. Absent for a pre-emptive press conference, Terrell leaves his aquarium compound in the hands of his first assistant David (Jon Korkes), not knowing that a complicated conspiracy is afoot to use his super-dolphins for a nefarious purpose.


The ecological eye-opener The Day of the Dolphin received a warm welcome from audiences, at least in Sierra Club-friendly Los Angeles. The sleek designer cetaceans are aesthetic-friendly in the extreme, with slippery smooth bodies and permanent smiles. We soon notice the flex joints between head, torso and tail — yes, we can see that they are adapted land creatures. In his interview on the disc, writer Buck Henry makes light of his scripting effort, but the fact is his story plays like a charm. In two speeches, George C. Scott covers what is known about dolphins, and what’s been theorized. Their entire world is tactile and sensual. Their language may be much more sophisticated than we know.

The story is fantastic, but not absurd: Nichols’ dolphins connect with the audience as intelligent creatures, not cartoon exaggerations. A decade of puerile Ivan Tors TV shows pretended that all animals are happy creatures that know how to share a joke with canned laughter. Anthropomorphism is the bane of animal pictures. Long before Disney animated a rodent, show folk made animals entertaining by giving them human characteristics, and thus helped keep our general awareness of them at a nursery-school level. Lassie, Flipper, Gentle Ben and the majority of their brethren may physically behave like animals, but their filmmakers endowed them with human emotions, moral wisdom, and sometimes clairvoyance. No wonder that many kids reject pets when they don’t behave like human playmates.


The Day of the Dolphin steers into sci-fi territory with a thematic assist from the very real Koko the Talking Gorilla. The source novel’s cetaceans are more fanciful in that they learn to converse fluently in English. Buck Henry’s script keeps their banter down to a dozen or so one-syllable words. These include phonetic sounds that a dolphins would likely not be able to produce, like ‘sh.’ Fa and Bee are anthropomorphosed to the extent that they dearly love Jake Terrell and are capable of loyalty and obedience. Their playfulness is equated with that of intelligent puppies. Their purity and devotion is almost divine — they’re capable of unlimited trust. Buck Henry’s underlying theme is that they’re more God’s creatures than we are, being unspoiled by human Sin.

Audiences respond to ‘pure hearted’ characters almost in a religious sense — idealized children, loyal pets. The Day of the Dolphin was the biggest sci-fi heartstring movie until 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The first part of the film is pure wonderment. We see the live birth of a baby dolphin, a fully-developed creature ready to swim and follow its mother at birth. Fa’s speech is built up gradually. We strain to hear what he has to say instead of giggling at his baby-doll words. I wonder how much trial and error was required to come up with the credible dolphin voices. The speech is so believable, Nichols’ movie may have inadvertently convinced thousands that English-speaking porpoises are a reality.


For those enchanted by the sleek, sexy animals, the arrival of the conspiracy plot may be unwelcome. By the end of the second act George C. Scott’s Terrell has already isolated the two lover-dolphins Fa and Bee to force them to continue speaking in English, which was cruel enough. After the enlightened attitudes of Terrell’s crew, the insensitive businessmen that glare at Fa and Bee seem intolerably arrogant. They’re the same kind of military experts that regard the sea monster of The Shape of Water as an expendable ‘asset.’

The film’s conspiracy scheme invites comparison with the controversial Kennedy conspiracy feature Executive Action, which was released about a month before The Day of the Dolphin. A cabal of sinister executives gather to refine their caper, which in this case involves hijacking Terrell’s research subjects. The miracle dolphins Fa and Bee are kidnapped not for their linguistic skills, but for their utility as dupes — underwater Lee Harvey Oswalds. The mechanics of the assassination are disturbingly credible. The military weaponizing of animals is certainly real.


Henry’s script does a good job with this development, cleverly misleading the audience when an annoying spy turns out to be an ally. In 1973 the conflict engine of a sinister ‘black ops’ government conspiracy wasn’t as all-pervasive (and lame) as it is now. For a time we wonder how soon a dumb ‘Lassie, go warn the sheriff!’ riff will kick in. Darned if Dolphin doesn’t make the cliché work, big-time. When Scott dispatches Fa to rescue Bee (“Fa – go – NOW!”) and Fa takes off like a shot to save the day, I must admit that ’73 audiences went nuts with approval. Georges Delerue’s deceptively emotional music underscores the dolphin heroics.


The show doesn’t have a downer ending, exactly, but it does express a compelling, pessimistic philosophy. All along, Jake Terrell has been hinting at the superiority of dolphins over humans, and the end gives us an eerie insight. (spoiler this paragraph.) Terrell’s research project disbands in panic, fearing the arrival of government spies or maybe even assassins. Jake and Maggie must cut their ties with Fa and Pa and send them out to the open sea, ‘away from the things of man.’  Like Victor Frankenstein, Terrell disowns and denies his creations, telling them he is no more. Basically, ‘God is Dead.’ The bleak final image isn’t empty nihilism, but one of the more powerful scenes in ecology-oriented filmmaking. Jake and Maggie sit apart, like Adam and Eve cast out from the Garden of Eden, in this case, the sea. The visual stresses their legs. In the distance, the finned dolphins cry out their names. They alone remain in a state of grace.

The show envisions a different kind of apocalypse. The mankind pictured here has developed into an Earth-killing infestation of technology and greed. As in an earlier sci-fi picture or two, Dolphin offers the sobering thought that our beautiful living planet would be better off if Man were to graciously make himself extinct.

The Day of the Dolphin now plays as one of Mike Nichols’ finest. His direction is elegant and unfussy. The dolphins are often incorporated into complicated one-shot scenes, instead of isolated in cutaways, Ivan Tors-style. This is one ‘mad scientist’ picture where the techno hardware is credible and unobtrusive. Richard Sylbert’s designs as photographed by Bill Fraker are a pleasure to watch. The time of day is sensitively registered and even the changing texture of the water is felt.


Cantankerous George C. Scott aquits himself well and doesn’t over-project. Wife Trish Van Devere is an appropriately concerned companion, and Paul Sorvino an ambivalent CIA spook. All are sublimated to Nichols’ careful direction, so that actors like Edward Herrmann, Fritz Weaver and Severn Darden (all frequently associated with liberal films) make maximum impact with a minimum of screen time. The great John Dehner (Man of the West) makes his conspirator Wallingford an especially effective villain. Jon Korkes (from Little Murders) is excellent in a thankless role. We previously saw him as the waist-gunner with his guts hanging out in the dream sequences of Nichols’ Catch-22.

Deserving special mention is Elizabeth Wilson, who we ought to know from Patterns, The Birds, The Graduate and Little Murders. Her brief bit as the intimidating executive secretary Mrs. Rome expresses the modern power monolith better than three hours of an Oliver Stone movie. Mrs. Rome has the corporate face that pretends engaging interest, while also projecting sphinxlike hostility. People familiar with humiliating human resources interviews may know the type. Mrs. Rome stops Terrell’s probe cold — we never see higher into the conspiracy, nor do we need to. An organization with such a public rep could be conducting Evil of any degree.

Terrell and his colleagues discover that their privately funded research is tied to sinister black-ops military work. At one point Jake receives a veiled reprimand: why doesn’t he stop a royal pain and simply do what the people who pay him want him to do?  Researchers know that military-funded grants are like mob loans — the ones giving the money may reserve the right to exercise full control.

Matte whiz Albert Whitlock is listed for special effects. His work here must be good as I’ve never detected any obvious optical jiggery — the movie is so good, I likely forgot to look for it. Creature From the Black Lagoon alumnus Jordan Klein filmed Dolphin’s utterly fantastic underwater material, which is some of the best I’ve seen. One pan shot in a water tank, from a funnel whirlpool over to a seated researcher in an underwater port, is so clear you’d swear no water is being used. Difficult shots look effortless. I admire this footage from personal experience in the early 1980s. As a TV commercial editor for Sea World I had to roll through thousands of feet of footage in search of decent jumping shots of Shamu and Namu. From a POV above the water, the animals never appeared where the cameramen expected them. Countless slow-motion shots held on still water, only for the dolphin to leap up off-camera, every time.


The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Day of the Dolphin is touted as a spiffy new 4K restoration. It looks splendid on a large monitor, in glorious Panavision. George Delerue’s music is showcased on the strong audio track, monaural I believe.

Some extras have been retained from the old (2003) HVe DVD. Actress Leslie Charleson’s interview mostly covers minor anecdotes, and Edward Herrmann’s talking points are more movie-related. He suggests that because Jake Terrell is being able to talk to God’s unspoiled creations, he might be talking to God. In his separate interview the late Buck Henry still sounds too self-deprecating. Yet the movie has aged better than some of Henry’s other work. Both Mike Nichols and producer Robert Relyea are gone now as well. It’s too bad that neither of them could talk at length about Dolphin, as Nichols did with Steve Soderburgh for the DVD of Catch-22.


The knowledgeable Nathaniel Thompson and Howard W. Berger conduct a feature-length chat that yields good information but also a lot of vamping. Berger knows his movies, and his free-association technique does come up with some good points. Nathaniel carries most of the hard info, but sometimes talks so fast I literally couldn’t follow him. Their discussion spitballs casual theories of how Dolphin fits in Mike Nichols’ filmography, and veers off subject to talk about Brian De Palma pictures. When on topic they have a lot to say, even if there’s little discipline: Is Dolphin’s opening gathering of women really just like The Green Berets’ opening gathering of reporters?  Nichols used Jake Terrell to express his personal problems as a filmmaker?  But then Berger will make a great observation, such as how the film’s subtle visual stylization repeatedly emphasizes rectangle shapes within the film frame. The commentary is lively, I just wish it were a bit less scattershot.

Oh, and by the way, when the film came out I saw it in Westwood’s Avco theater and at a military screening at Norton AFB, and a third time somewhere else — it hung around quite a while as a second feature. I don’t know if The Day of the Dolphin did well. Every audience I saw it with watched in rapt attention, and applauded when the clever dolphins turned the tables on the conspirators.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Day of the Dolphin
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Audio commentary by Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson; Interviews with screenwriter Buck Henry and actors Leslie Charleson and Edward Herrmann, radio spot.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
March 24, 2020

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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