Color, 1973, 104 mins. 58 secs.
Directed by Mike Nichols
Starring George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Paul Sorvino, Fritz Weaver, Jon Korkes, Edward Herrmann, John David Carson, Severn Darden
Indicator (Blu-ray) (UK RB HD), Kino Lorber (Blu-ray) (US RA NTSC), Home Vision (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
The seemingly unstoppable, Oscar-winning hot streak of director Mike Nichols that began with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was strongly tied with producer and Embassy Pictures head Joseph E. Levine. Having greenlit The Graduate and Carnal Knowledge with Nichols, the pair had one film left in their contract that led to an very unexpected film often regarded as the start of Nichols' fall from grace: The Day of the Dolphin, a loose adaptation of a French novel by Robert Merle that was regarded as a somewhat cursed property when Roman Polanski had to abandon it due to the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate. Enlisting regular collaborator Buck Henry to write the script, Nichols created a unique and beautifully shot fusion of science fiction, animal rights tearjerker, and paranoid thriller that left many critics scratching their heads at the time. Since then it's become something of a cult film, largely due to the brilliant score by composer Georges Deleure and a committed main performance by George C. Scott (who was reportedly a major pain during production, but the results speak for themselves).
In the Bahamas, scientific researchers Jake and Maggie Terrell (Scott and Van Devere, real-life spouses and frequent pairs in films like The Changeling) have developed a method of verbal communication with a dolphin, Alpha, nicknamed Fa. A newly-arrived female dolphin, Bea, causes them to rethink their approach when some challenges arise, but it soon becomes possible for both of them to communicate with the scientists. After extorting the Terrell's financial supporter, Harold DeMilo (Creepshow's Weaver), shady government agent Curtis (Sorvino) infiltrates the lab posing as a reporter to find out the truth about the dolphin breakthrough. Of course, it soon turns out that there's a nefarious plan afoot to utilize the dolphins for destructive means, with Jake and Maggie forced into a race against the clock.
Though the suspense and speculative science elements here work well enough, The Day of the Dolphin is strongest dealing with the bond between the Terrells and the two dolphins that leads to a haunting and really heartbreaking ending. Like many animal rights-themed films of the era, the film wears its heart on its sleeve with a sincerity that made it an easy target for some critics at the time. However, if you take the film on its own terms, it's one that really sticks with you and doesn't betray what was a famously turbulent production (with Nichols later verbally writing the film off on occasion, no doubt still bruised by the production process). After this and The Fortune, Nichols took a sabbatical for a while focusing more on the stage and TV instead for several years, ultimately emerging as a very different sort of filmmaker in the '80s. However, this film continues to endure with good reason and also works as a fine showcase for some fun veteran character actors also including Edward Herrmann and Pretty Maids All in a Row's John David Carson, who teamed up with Scott and Van Devere again the following year in the far more perverse The Savage Is Loose.
Fairly easy to see ever since its theatrical release by AVCO Embassy, The Day of the Dolphin turned up regularly on TV for years after its 1976 network TV debut. Embassy released an essentially unwatchable, heavily cropped VHS in 1986, while the first letterboxed version appeared on DVD in 2003 from Home Vision with a reissue in 2006 directly from its half-parent company, Image Entertainment. That transfer looked fine for the time, albeit with some visible vertical squishing, and it came with a trivia gallery, dolphin bios, a "Birth of a Dolphin" interview with Buck Henry (12m19s), and "Landing the Role" separate chats with actors Leslie Charleson (6m47s) and Edward Herrmann (13m6s). In 2020, Kino Lorber released the film on Blu-ray and DVD featuring a much-improved widescreen transfer from a Studio Canal-provided 4K restoration with the correct proportions, nice color, and a good 2.0 English DTS-HD stereo track with optional English subtitles. That release also comes with an audio commentary with this writer and Howard S. Berger, so it obviously can't be evaluated here. Also included are the three prior video interviews from the DVD, here stitched together in one 32m16s reel, along with a standard def (and spoiler-laden) theatrical trailer, a radio spot, and bonus trailers for They Might Be Giants?, Bank Shot, Where's Poppa?, Harry in Your Pocket, and Silkwood.
In 2021, Indicator gave Nichols' film its U.K. Blu-ray debut in an expanded special edition featuring the same excellent transfer, looking identical to these eyes. One nice upgrade here is the audio, which features not only the standard 2.0 track but a three-channel 3.0 English DTS-HD MA track as well, presumably created for premiere theatrical engagements. Delerue's score is the major beneficiary here, getting some nice extra separation here and really filling the room at times. Optional improved English SDH subtitles are also provided. A selected scenes audio commentary with film historian Sheldon Hall (32m40s) is more of an audio essay, only partially scene specific while mostly offering a general overview of how to approach the film, the significance of a few scenes to the overall agenda of the film, Nichols' attitude to the film during and after its creation, and the intricacies of the sound design. The three archival interviews are ported over here (separated again as with the DVD), but some new interviews are added as well. In "Days of My Life" (43m46s), actor Jon Korkes provides an extremely thorough account of the film's production including his memories of Nichols starting with Catch-22, the loose casting process for this film, the arduous production process starting in Miami and then focusing mainly in the Bahamas, and the eventful and sometimes friction-filled interactions during the shoot, which at least allowed them to have first-run movie nights together. Apparently Nichols' legendary improv skills came in pretty handy, too. Then in "Moon Over the Bahamas" (39m24s), second assistant director and longtime Nichols collaborator Michael Haley gives a very colorful account of his earlier days learning the trade on adult films and The Honeymoon Killers through his first acting experience opposite Sophia Loren and his many Nichols projects starting with this film all the way through Charlie Wilson's War. Also included are the theatrical trailer (in its original form and a Trailers from Hell version presented by Larry Karaszewski), a very lackluster TV spot, 86s of radio spots, and a 66-image gallery of stills and promotional material. The 3,000-unit limited edition comes with a 36-page booklet featuring a perceptive new essay by Neil Sinyard ("Another World") about the film's place in Nichols' work, extracts from interviews with Nichols and Levine over the years, an archival Los Angeles Times with interview with Van Devere, samples from the dolphin conversations in the source novel, and three sample critical reactions from the initial release.
Kino Lorber (Blu-ray)
Home Vision (DVD)
Reviewed on August 8, 2021