The Day of the Dolphin was Mike Nichols’ first big flop, his adaption of Catch-22 was considered a failure by some but turned a profit. Nichols at that point was one of the biggest directors on the planet, with The Graduate and Carnal Knowledge under his belt, one of the golden boys of New Hollywood. However, he was not the original director on The Day of the Dolphin, a film project that had been around for a while in various stages. It is now probably better known for its production history than the film itself—it was the film that Roman Polanski was prepping in England when the Manson murders happened. Naturally, Polanski immediately returned to Hollywood and abandoned the project. Polanski’s next film would end up being his infamously bloody version of Macbeth.
Next, Franklin J. Schaffner was attached for a while. He might have actually been able to make something out of it, as he was a good workmanlike director who did Planet of the Apes, Patton, Papillon and The Boys from Brazil. That gave him a background in science fiction that would have been useful for what was basically a science fiction movie.
Next came Nichols, who was known for doing dramadies. He had to do one more film to get out of his contract, and Day of the Dolphin fell into his lap. The result was a bonkers movie, but not in a good way.
George C. Scott plays Jake Turrell, who is clearly based on renegade scientist John C. Lilly, who was best known for his experiences with dolphins, sensory deprivation tanks and hallucinogenic drugs. It’s a weird sci-fi assassination plot where people are trying to kidnap dolphins to kill the President with.
It was written by Buck Henry, who’s a great screenwriter (The Graduate, To Die For, Nichols’ Catch-22 script, and many uncredited script doctor successes), who seemed to be a bit bemused by the film altogether. He did the voices for the dolphins in it as well. So here you have this A-team of George C. Scott—who was arguably the best actor in the world if you look at his run at that point, Mike Nichols and Buck Henry. It could have been great, but they didn’t know what kind of movie they were making. This film isn’t even a B movie, it’s a C movie, the bottom half of a triple bill, because the story is just so ludicrous. It’s so crazy that it’s actually… boring. Even the sight of George C. Scott in short shorts doesn’t save the film! Of Nichols’ few attempts to make a genre film, his horror movie Wolf is much better than this (although it’s not especially good either).
By all accounts the novel is much more of a satire, so it’s surprising that this group didn’t pick up on that. But it’s such an absolute failure of a movie that it’s worth seeing, even though you can clearly see that it was made for Nichols to get out his contract. His next film was The Fortune, which was a much better film but actually a massive fiasco—you would think that a film with Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson in 1975 playing 1920s scam artists would be guaranteed box office gold, but it didn’t turn out that way. After that, Nichols returned to working in theatre until Silkwood.
It’s an Indicator Blu-Ray release, so there are a bunch of extras: selected scene commentary with Sheldon Hall; a 40-minute discussion of the film with Michael Haley, Nichols’ second assistant director; archival interviews with Buck Henry, actors Leslie Charleson and Edward Hermann; original theatrical trailer and a short critical appreciation and trailer commentary from Larry Karaszewski; plus TV and radio spots, image gallery, and promotional materials. There’s also a 36-page booklet featuring a new Neil Sinyard essay, interview extracts from Mike Nichols and producer Joseph E. Levine; an archival print interview with actor Trish DeVere; plus film credits and a collection of contemporary critical responses.