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The Day of the Dolphin

Among the most unusual government-conspiracy thrillers ever made, 1973's The Day of the Dolphin very easily could have been among the silliest as well. Not that it isn't silly — on paper, it's an outlandish admixture of interspiecies bonhomie and rifle-toting assassins, fixed in the looming paranoia of political assassinations and nebulous government agencies. Call it Dr. Dolittle meets Lee Harvey Oswald. But somehow the film does work, thanks mostly to the presence of star George C. Scott and the collaboration of director Mike Nichols and scenarist Buck Henry, who elevate the material beyond its pulp-paperback sensibilities. Scott stars as Dr. Jake Terrell, a marine mammal researcher who has won a generous grant from a research foundation to study dolphins at a remote facility in the Bahamas. But what the foundation doesn't know — or anyone else — is that Jake has managed to get one dolphin, Alpha or simply "Fa," to communicate in rudimentary English. However, word soon leaks out about the experiments, leading to a visit from magazine writer Curtis Mahoney (Paul Sorvino), who asks the sorts of questions that make people nervous. Jake is convinced that Mahoney works for the government. What he doesn't realize is that there's someone he can't trust in his own midst, and before long a mysterious cabal kidnaps Fa and his female companion Bee, intent on training them in underwater demolition, with the eventual goal of assassinating the president. Based on the popular novel by Robert Merle, one would be hard-pressed to think of two more unusual filmmaking partners than Mike Nichols and Buck Henry to bring The Day of the Dolphin to the screen. The duo behind The Graduate (1967) and Catch-22 (1970) had a taste for wry, somewhat cynical material, while Dolphin sprang from a book that detractors described as new-age, feel-good, animals-can-talk claptrap. In fact, Nichols only agreed to make the film in order to conclude an outstanding contract, and he quite naturally solicited his friend Henry to take up his pen. Henry has admitted that he didn't care much for the novel and struggled with the adaptation, choosing to simplify some of the plot, but also change a key part of the book — in the original story, the dolphins speak clear, lucid English, whereas in the movie they have a limited vocabulary of high-pitched, vowel-heavy words (Henry, in fact, did much of the dolphin-speak heard in the film). The ensemble cast is good for the most part, particularly Paul Sorvino as the government spook who's hard to pin down, as well as Edward Herrmann as the island's resident motorboat pilot. Trish Van Devere gets the part as Jake's wife Maggie, and while her beauty and young age make her seem like a Hollywood cliché alongside an older leading man, she was in fact married to Scott in real life. And as for Scott, he brings his notable gravitas to the role — after all, at the time he was America's foremost cinematic icon. But even his presence in virtually every scene can't deflect the film's peculiar quality — at times, such as when Fa speaks to a group of men from the foundation to justify Jake's research, the scene seems lifted from the sort of live-action Disney film where anthropomorphic anomalies abound. The same can be said for the penultimate sequence, as Fa tracks down Bee and the two dolphins then turn the tables on the bad guys (really). And yet it's so easy to accept these dolphins as honest-to-goodness film characters, mostly because Scott, Nichols, and Henry never wink at the audience, offering the marine adventure at face-value. One sequence, where Jake purposefully separates Fa and Bee into adjoining tanks, which leads Fa to nearly kill himself by repeatedly smashing a steel barrier for several hours, is undeniably distressing. And if you find that you've bought the story enough to stay with it until the end, the film's final moments are downright heartbreaking. Home Vision's DVD release of The Day of the Dolphin features a clean anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 3.0 or Dolby 2.0 Surround audio (the latter here described as "Dolphin H2.0 Surround"). The supplements on the disc are attractive, if slender. The trivia collection is a fun click-through (yes, Roman Polanski was the original director until the tragic death of his wife Sharon Tate). Interviews with screenwriter Henry and stars Herrmann and Leslie Charleson also are on board — all three are well-spoken and appealing. The veteran Herrmann comes across as the ideal dinner guest you'd listen to for hours without complaint. And Henry is his usually dry, acerbic, self-depricating self (he bemoans that the success of Dolphin kept him from getting work doing a variety of animal voices in Hollywood films because everybody afterwards categorized him as "just a dolphin guy"). Keep-case.

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