The Day of the Dolphin


Kino Lorber;
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG.’
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.

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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.

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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.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Day of the Dolphin’ and ‘X … the Unknown’

The Hanging Tree


Available via Warner Archive;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Gary Cooper, Maria Schell, Ben Piazza, Karl Malden, George C. Scott. 

Gary Cooper made three more movies after The Hanging Tree before his death in the spring of 1961, but due to varied limitations in terms of conception and/or execution, none of them seem like the “real” Gary Cooper movie that this oddball 1959 Western (filmed in Yakima, Wash., but set in Cooper’s real-life home state of Montana) absolutely does. For some strange reason known only to my sometimes equally oddball-ish thought processes, I thought of this movie while watching Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri — for no obvious reason. Other than the fact, that is, that the tones of both couldn’t care less about adhering to any established norms of their respective genres on the way to establishing tones of their own, which are highly eccentric. In other words, each is borderline unique.

Though based on a novel by Dorothy M. Johnson, who wrote the short story on which The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was based, Tree also brings to mind a second Ford-Wayne masterpiece: The Searchers. Not in quality, to be sure — but due to the fact that this is another Technicolor superstar Warner Bros. Western from roughly the same movie era where nearly everyone in it ranges from being a little “tetched” to downright crazy. Notably, this off-center lineup doesn’t include Cooper’s character himself, who is stalwart and above it all; in fact, if you ever want to see what totally commanding superstardom was, here’s as good a place to begin as any. This said, the poker-loving physician Cooper plays has a rumored deep, dark secret in his past: something involving a not unintentional house fire that killed a man and woman — an event not explained at all until the end and even then with a key detail or two missing. One senses that it was traumatic enough to knock any involved survivor of it permanently off kilter, but Cooper is doing his best to stay above it all.

Meanwhile, there’s George C. Scott playing a phony frontier religious fanatic (think about it) in his big screen debut. There’s also Karl Malden, in a performance that’s broad even for him in those times when his directors let go of the reins, as a salacious creep whose underwear probably hasn’t been changed since the Crusades — which must make it pretty tough on Doc Cooper when he has to lance a boil on Malden’s behind (think: A Streetcar Named Retch). Cast as a near-lynching victim who’s blackmailed into indentured servitude after Cooper saves him, Ben Piazza (who was mostly relegated to TV after his movie debut here as well) has an acting style that seems more out of a subsequent century — though he still halfway fits in, given this crazy company. And co-lead Maria Schell, who always seemed fairly normal on screen other than her tendency to turn on her sunbeam smile too much, plays a character whose demons are built-in by the script. She’s been left badly sunburned and blinded (for a while, anyway) after barely escaping from a stagecoach robbery in which every other passenger was killed. Malden takes advantage by sneaking looks at her in stages of undress, which suggests Donald Trump’s braggadocio over walking in on Miss Teen USA contestants during costume changes. (Trump, you have to believe, probably has at least two boils.)

Cooper tries to take the high road by treating Schell’s burns and laboring to restore her sight, but the town crone (Jack Webb/“Dragnet” favorite Virginia Gregg) assumes the worst about the village newcomer’s necessary residence in the doctor’s shack — a rather strange target, given the fair abundance of gold-town prostitutes around who aren’t exactly trying to disguise their trade. And indeed, this makeshift burg does have gold fever, which is driving the supporting cast as loopy as the principals — enough, even, to make Scott’s preacher smell money, though one never gets the sense that he’s ever undergone any valid spiritual calling at any point in his life. Today, he’d be on some Sunday morning cable show hawking his new DVD for the temporary low price of $2,495, throwing in a 4-by-6 black-and-white of Charlton Heston (from The Pigeon That Took Rome because he got a bulk deal from the retailer) if you order now.

Tree was last in a cycle of really good Delmer Daves Westerns from the middle and late ’50s, and a wonderful live June 8, 1958, edition of Dave Garroway’s “Wide Wide World” (which aired in NBC’s Sunday afternoon TV ghetto; I saw it at the time) shows him directing Cooper out and around the doctor’s shack in a location that’s somewhere between hilly and mountainous. (Findable on DVD if you’re wearing a miner’s cap, the show also featured Wayne, Ford, Gene Autry, Walter Brennan and more — even The Great Train Robbery’s real-life tenderfoot Broncho Billy Anderson, who’d been a long time between gigs but had just gotten a special Oscar a couple months earlier.) The somewhat underrated Daves, at least until the very end, was about to undergo a massive career switch following the coming Christmas’s smash hit of A Summer Place, launching a series of soapers that half-promoted teenaged sex as long as it was with Troy Donahue.

Cooper’s man-in-black look here is one of the coolest I’ve seen, and it points up how much costuming that we don’t even think about can have such a potent effect on character and drama. The actor was probably sick by this time (cancer), but it doesn’t show to my eye, and I love that we have both this film and the even better Man of The West from so close to the end of his line. Even penny-pinching Jack Warner (see Alan K. Rode’s massive but panther-paced new Michael Curtiz bio for countless examples) had bailed on dribbly Warner Color by this time, so Tree was Technicolor (and on the higher side of that). The cinematographer was Ted McCord, who never seems to have gotten the due he deserves, though he shot Johnny Belinda, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, East of Eden and The Sound of Music.

For extra cosmetics, Marty Robbins gets the movie off to a great start by singing the Oscar-nominated title tune over the credits (it only got to Billboard No. 38 but deserved better). It’s also featured on the classic Hell Bent for Leather LP (I bought it in 1961, upon release), whose front jacket features Frankie Laine in a gun-belt. Truth to tell, Frankie was as much of a tenderfoot as Broncho Billy, but he looked the part and even once appeared in a “Rawhide” episode that I saw at the time. Though judging from how Clint Eastwood talked to the trees in Paint Your Wagon, Laine must not have given the show’s co-star any successful tips on how to song-belt.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Hanging Tree’ and ‘Steve McQueen: American Icon’