March 2, 2020
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray;
Stars George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Paul Sorvino, Fritz Weaver.
When I came out of The Day of the Dolphin in 1973, my reaction was akin to that of so many other film folk in that we couldn’t quite figure out what the hell we’d just seen. This had nothing to do with always on-point storytelling courtesy of what I now realize was an outstanding Buck Henry script (from a sprawling-times-12 Robert Merle novel) — but, instead, with the mix of talent and subject matter. Which is to say that here were Henry and Mike Nichols making a George C. Scott “family” (or close) ‘PG’ movie about sincere straight-faced love for trained the trained dolphins to whom Scott and his small scientific crew are trying to teach English. And at this point (his fifth feature), Nichols was coming off the edgy quartet of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Graduate (with a Henry screenplay), Catch-22 (Henry screenplay) and the still psychologically brutal Carnal Knowledge.
The picture’s Wikipedia entry quotes the Pauline Kael review as suggesting “that if the best subject that Nichols and Henry could think of was talking dolphins, then they should quit making movies altogether” — which I now realize is one of the crummiest and most patronizing things she said in her entire career, or at least crummy and patronizing enough to place it in her top 5,000 transgressions. (But. Don’t. Get. Me. Going. On. Pauline.) On Kino’s wonderful bonus featurette, Henry, who was never absolutely crazy about the film himself, notes that Kael also said that he and Nichols had put enormous effort into a movie whose main distinction was “scaring children” (his comment and look of eye-rolling disgust are worth the price of admission). The point is, though, there are career departures and career departures, but this was something like Vincente Minnelli taking a crack at a spaghetti Western.
The first thing I noticed this time out was not just how thoroughly invested actor Scott is in swimming, communicating and otherwise interacting with the creatures to whom his character and a handful of scientific colleagues are trying to teach English just outside their island laboratory — a place so isolated that it requires a rough speedboat ride through sometimes choppy waters to reach what ultimately comes off as a working paradise. This kind of thing can’t be faked, especially on the off chance that you’ve coincidentally just seen Scott in The Hospital as I just did a couple weeks ago when I was preparing taxes and thus in the mood for some Paddy Chayefsky bombast (in this vein, I also watched Taxi Driver as well).
In the Chayefsky/Arthur Hiller concoction from two years earlier, Scott looks all too believable as a walking coronary who heads up a unit in a prestigious New York medical center: he’s unkempt; has pasty skin tones (though United Artists DeLuxe Color did this to a lot of actors in the early ’70s); is drug abusing, self-loathing and all those other traits that make it something less than A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. But as wags use to say of Richard Nixon in the ’80s in Dolphins, he’s “tan, rested and ready” — which I never got the impression Scott ever was even in real life aside from the last count. (A woman I used to work with had a newswire photo hanging in her cubicle of Scott exiting a plane after he had all-too-obviously wet himself big-time). Here, he looks in strapping shape with lots of color (the solar-induced kind) in his face.
The entire second half of Dolphins is a spoiler minefield of plot twists — or, more precisely, one huge plot twist from which additional tinier ones then emanate — so I’d better “write around” a lot of the film’s content. What has to be noted, though, is that the surprise(s) ought to be jarring and maybe even all-out movie-killers when, it, fact, the whole picture is tonally seamless. There aren’t many filmmakers who can pull this kind of thing off, and seamlessly, which ought to give some indication of how much in control Nichols was with his early movies (more on this in a minute), even if Catch-22 got away from him despite some great scenes. In this case, we actually segue from Ivan Tors Flipper territory into an early example of the kind of mid-’70s paranoid thriller that used to be Alan Pakula’s bailiwick.
Film historians Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson offer the Blu-ray bonus commentary with the former doing most of the talking; he makes the case that in addition to whatever else it is, Dolphins is a metaphor for film directors with vision battling studio suits who are deciding whether or not they’re going to come through with the necessary financial backing. More often than not, I find these speculative flights a little much, but I have to say that Berger makes a persuasive case here.
There’s a beautifully Panavision-framed scene — could Nichols block actors or what? — where the endowing string-pullers sail out to the island to pass judgment on the research project’s feasibility. So director Nichols lines them up horizontally in chairs on an oceanside platform above Scott and then has them looking down at him as he relates his progress and intentions in what is basically a pitch meeting out of Robert Altman’s The Player. These show-me types range in personality from a Mr. P-R-smoothie who’s presumably supportive (Fritz Weaver, whose slick characterization is perfect) to transparent creeps who haven’t a clue about anything scientific (John Dehner) to those who think they know more than they probably do (Severn Darden).
Even in its most family-oriented ‘PG’ moments, we sense that Henry and Nichols are not unmindful of certain ethical questions that can be raised even when the scientists involved are genuinely loving and have the best intentions. They are, despite kid-glove care from Scott and colleague/wife Trish Van Devere (this has to be her high-water mark on screen for the then real-life Mrs. Scott) taking the dolphins out their natural habitat, which is OK for now when the returned affection is palpable but may cause problems if they ever return to their original way of living well out into the ocean.
Commentator Berger makes a big point here of something that’s been on my own mind for a long time, which is that if you walk in blind to any of director’s first six features up through The Fortune, his identity will be pretty obvious without much time expenditure. Nichols’ debut Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was in 1.85:1, but all the others were in superbly utilized Panavison; the sextet’s cinematographers were Haskell Wexler, Robert Surtees, David Watkin, Giuseppe Rotunno, Chinatown’s John Alonzo and (here) William A. Fraker of Bullitt and Rosemary’s Baby fame — a Murderer’s Row if there ever was one. But after the severe box office underperformance of Dolphins followed by the total drubbing of The Fortune (which today looks redeemed to a point by the production design and really funny Jack Nicholson performance), this specific Nichols era came to an end.
Aside from the indifferent Gilda Live, Nichols retreated for eight years and when he returned, his movies immediately looked different from anything that had preceded — and for the rest of his career. This isn’t to say he didn’t go on to make some impressive ones — his first feature back was Silkwood, while HBO’s Angels in America is a contender for best film of his career — but he never worked in 2.35:1 again. (Not even, as Berger points out with Closer, which seemed to call for it.)
Dolphins, which Nichols basically took on to get out of his Avco-Embassy contract after the Sharon Tate murders ended Roman Polanski’s participation, went from mixed initial reviews to delayed disdain to what I perceive has been more recent favorable revisionism; it’s truly old-school Mike Nichols, no matter the its subject matter. This is the most favorably surprised I’ve been at a movie in quite a while — the Georges Delerue score is close to an all-timer, which helps — though no less unexpected is watching Scott so thoroughly ace it in a relatively demon-less role, though (this being Scott) still bringing some edge to it. The Blu-ray bonus interviews also include featured players Leslie Charleson and the late Edward Hermann, and like Henry, could not be more infectiously personable.