This poster is both roughly accurate, and a goddamn lie
“I think we should make a thriller, and Mike Nichols should direct it.”
“What kind of thriller?”
“A dolphin thriller.”
“Well, who should write it?”
“It seems to me that the clear choice here is Buck Henry.”
So, in my dreams, goes the inception of The Day of the Dolphin, the film that brought Nichols, Henry, George C. Scott, Paul Sorvino and talking dolphins into the world of the 1970s paranoid thriller. I’ve come to learn that, unfortunately, things likely played out much differently, not least because there was a novel first, and also because several directors, including Roman Polanski and Jean-Luc Godard, either were up for or actively lobbied to make the film themselves. This is an intriguing variety of filmmakers, I think you’ll agree, but I’m pretty confident not one of them could have done a better job than Mike Nichols ended up doing, which I don’t exactly mean as a compliment, because, again: talking dolphins.
I watched The Day of the Dolphin last night after several months of letting it gather dust on my shelves, because I’d think “Well, George C. Scott, and everything…but it can’t be any good, can it?” To outright steal a phrase from John Self, the film does turn out to be any good; it’s just not many good. Nichols and Henry take an intriguingly straightforward approach to this story, and in the early goings I was more than willing to see where it took me. This low-level enthusiasm was helped along by George C. Scott, who in many ways I think is my ideal actor (this is because I believe that he's very good). Scott plays the hero, a dolphin scientist or whatever, who requires private and government funding to keep his artist/science/dolphin commune running. It is in that commune that he is teaching dolphins to talk. Or a dolphin, named Alpha, or (weary sigh) Pha, for short. I think there’s a logic behind that diminutive, something to do with making it easier for the dolphin to pronounce its name, but in that case maybe they should have gone with “Paul” and avoided all that cutesy “Pha” bullshit. Or if not “Paul”, then “Eeeeeee-eee-EEEEEEEEEE”. Anyway, long story short, some people come to take the dolphins, and The Day of the Dolphin becomes a thriller in its last thirty minutes or so.
I liked George C. Scott a lot, but I can’t shake the feeling that he probably felt like a jackass the whole shoot, and no wonder. He has two scenes with (weary sigh) Pha where he and the dolphin talk for I’d say roughly about 71 minutes, each time. Dragging things down still further is the fact that Scott – the only real actor between him and the dolphin – is made to repeat his questions over and over (“Where’s the boat!” “PHA LOVE PA!” “Where’s the boat, Pha!?” “PHA SAY BOAT GO NOW!” or whatever the fuck the fucking dolphin says) so that any zip the dialogue may have had is quickly lost. Another casualty of scenes like this, it turns out, was my attention, because I’ll be honest: I started to drift after a while. In fact, I couldn’t really tell you what the bad guys wanted the dolphins for. I do know that the eventual plan was to kill the dolphins, because one of them could talk, but what they expected that dolphin to say and therefore necessitate its being terminated with extreme prejudice, I don’t know. In fairness, I do not doubt for a second that somebody in the film provided that information, but I didn’t hear it because that “PHA LOVE PA” shit was wearing on my last nerve and I started arguing with people on the internet about what’s to be done with bullies.
So anyway, that’s my review of The Day of the Dolphin.