The Day of the Dolphin (Nichols, 1973)

Mike Nichols, George C. Scott and Paul Sorvino have all done some great work in their careers.  The Day of the Dolphin is not one of those works.  Sort of like The Parallax View meets Free Willy, the aquatic thriller is goofy all over yet played with such seriousness.

Scott is Dr. Jake Terrell, a gruff (of course he’s gruff…it’s George C. Scott, after all), renegade dolphin trainer/scientist.  His prized experiment is Alpha – Pha for short – a dolphin that he’s been training to speak English with the help and money of a mysterious foundation.  Curtis Mahoney (Sorvino) is a shady reporter trying to get access to Terrell’s isolated training facility.

The subject matter of The Day of the Dolphin is silly, and it doesn’t help that the pacing is all over the place.  By pacing, in this case, I refer largely to a fault from the script.  Not much really happens in this film – outside of a general fascination with dolphins – for the first 60%.  After that, everything that could have been suspenseful is just tossed together quickly.

Paul Sorvino’s character is particularly useless.  A red herring-type, his turn completely lacks drama.  He also has an unintentionally hilarious “aha” moment where he “discovers” a critical location simply by having fallen asleep on a map.  It feels like a) either a scene got cut, or b) the writer and director had no idea how to discover said information otherwise.

Here’s my favorite part of the film.  I say that with my tongue in my cheek.

Terrell and his wife Maggie (Trish Van Devere) return to the facility only to find that Pha has disappeared.  Amidst a rainy night they talk to his employees/students about the dolphin-napping:

Picture 1 Picture 2

Nichols cuts back to Jake and Maggie-

Picture 3

-and then to this hilarious shot outside-

Picture 4

-and then, yet again hilariously, back inside to the stunned group staring at the sign-holder-

Picture 5

Why is this so funny?  Well, there’s a reasonable explanation (and solution).  1) Nichols and editor Sam O’Steen don’t show Jake and Maggie reacting in shot 3 (you can clearly see Jake looking away from the door, and towards Maggie);  2) He cuts from their non-reaction to a new location entirely – outside – so it’s disorienting; 3) the character outside seems, initially, to be in another film altogether – who is he talking to?  Why is he kind of laughing?  What did he make that sign out of?;  and 4) The final shot is a stunned tableau that registers more confusion than danger.

Simple solution: in shot 3 have Jake react and bring in the audio of the character outside’s footsteps before we see that character in shot 4.  That would bridge the cut from shot 3 to 4 better.  Then, when cutting back tot he wide-shot tableau at the end, have motion in the frame, rather than a group of people seemingly struck dumb.

The unwieldy-ness of this moment is somewhat representative of the entire film – a film that goes out of its way to not include the dolphin and George C. Scott in the same frame, thus making it feel rather “cutty.”

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About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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