A 1973 slightly science-fictiony drama, rated PG (US), runs 1 hour, 44 minutes

Written by Buck Henry, from a 1969 novel by Robert Merle.
Directed by Mike Nichols.

Major Cast
George C. Scott
Trish van DeVere
Paul Sorvino
Fritz Weaver

C-Dawg says: Two flippers up

I think this film did poorly in theaters when it was released, even though I would guess that that period was the zenith of George C. Scott's career. (It trailed by three years the debut of Patton.) Nonetheless, when I think of Scott's film career, this is what I would remember him for, rather than for Patton, as deserving of its acclaim as that film may be.

In Dolphin, he retains his characteristic gruffness, but this time his role is possibly the diametrical opposite of the hardnosed military type. Rather, he is a marine biologist, in his own secluded world of research, working with his fellow scientist and wife, who on occasion brings his true gentle nature to our attention.

The first part of the movie might have the viewer wondering if there's a real story to be told here; even though it might be of interest to some for its setting in the lab, not to worry: there is an element of mystery thrown in eventually, which introduces the dramatic plot element and leads to the film's denouement. At least one reviewer thought that the movie would have been better not going off in that direction, but I disagree, and the tear jerker ending needs it (or something like it) to give it its raison d'ĂȘtre. And that ending is what makes this film memorable, and provokes this writeup about it years after my first viewing.

And now, off to the plot summary. If you haven't seen the movie and don't want to be exposed to spoilers, exit this writeup now and go watch The Day of the Dolphin.

Dr. Jake Terrell (Scott) for several years has been attempting to achieve communication between man and cetacean. His unwitting accomplice to this end is a born-in-captivity dolphin which he's named Alpha. Joining him on the human side is his wife Maggie (van DeVere), and four or five assistants. The work is secret, carried out on an island off of Florida, and funded by the private Franklin Foundation.

Jake's relationship with the foundation is, perhaps, typical; namely, he tolerates them as long as the money flows and they don't bother him too much. Quite unrealistically, I'm sure, he hides his actual progress from them, helped along by his not-too-antagonistic relationship with the board member (Weaver) with whom he interacts.

The movie opens with Jake giving a public presentation on dolphins as a public relations service of the Foundation. He talks about dolphins in general, and the studies he undertakes of them with regard to their physiology, psychology, and intelligence. In the Q&A session, one lady asks about a dolphin speaking.

Lady: I heard that a dolphin had counted from one to eight, in English.
Terrell: Probably just a trick.
But shortly after he returns to the island, we see that he was being misleading, if not downright dishonest. He visits Alpha, sitting on the edge of the pool; Alpha swims up to him, rests his head on Jake's knee, and says "Pa!". We the audience anthropomorphically infer feelings of love from Alpha's face, and see them returned by Jake, as he answers "Hello, Pha".

Go ahead, put on your macho mask and believe
that you won't tear up when you see that.

After four years of swift progress, Alpha seems to be going on strike. He doesn't want to talk anymore, and Jake thinks the most likely reason is he's lonely. They give him a girlfriend, another dolphin which has been involved in the more mundane (i.e., non-talking) research they do. They call her Beta. Because Alpha can only speak simple, one-syllable words, they introduce her to him as Bee. Alpha is happy.

The island receives a visitor, one Curtis Mahoney (Sorvino), who claims to be a freelance writer -- a claim that convinces nobody, but they don't know what his real story is. He is there under the auspices of the Foundation, so they give him a tour and don't talk about their most important work. We had seen that he gained entry via an interview with Harold deMilo (Weaver), one of the directors of the Foundation, who acquiesced in the face of powerful (but not revealed in detail) credentials evidencing great pull with the government, and veiled threats of blackmail.

After a day, he leaves with, they think, no harm done. Jake, Maggie, and the staff return to their work, which is still trying to get Alpha to resume talking. His companionship with Beta has made him happy, but also not inclined to the hard work that Jake wants him to do, instead falling into his natural state. Jake decides to separate them, and after spending most of a day in the tank with the two of them, Beta is put into a neighboring tank, now separated from Alpha by a stout steel barrier. Alpha is not happy about this, but will not succumb to Jake's promise to reunite them if Alpha will only speak to him. Instead, Alpha begins swimming rapidly around the perimeter of the tank, giving the gate a powerful thwack with his tail each time he comes around. This is difficult for everyone to watch, and Jake orders them all away. This continues on for what appears to be a few days, Alpha continuing his thwacking around the clock. Then in the middle of the night, Maggie is awakened by the sound of silence on the intercom, and she calls down to Jake who is sleeping next to the tank. Alpha surrenders:

Alpha: Pha want Bee
Jake: Yes, Pha wants Bee
Alpha: Pa give Bee now!
and Jake jumps up and lifts the barrier. Alpha has learned his lesson, and resumes speaking, as well as helping to teach Beta to talk.

One day Mr. deMilo calls and tells Jake that Mahoney somehow found out about Alpha's talking and intends to go public with the news. Jake is venting his frustration at Maggie:

Maggie: Well, you couldn't keep it secret forever. What were you doing this for, anyway?
Jake: I don't want them exploited! They'll probably be pictured on T-shirts, or have a restaurant chain named after them, or who knows what?
Maggie: Well, whose fault is that? Who taught them to talk?

So next we see several Foundation boardmembers at the island being shown the abilities of Alpha and Beta. Jake is answering their questions, and in response to some of them suggests they address the question to Alpha or Beta, who are in the water with their (heads? chins? beaks?) resting on the floating walkway where Jake is standing. Another welling-up moment (perhaps a bit too cheesy):

Boardmember: So what would happen if Alpha was returned to the sea? Would he teach other dolphins to talk? Would we end up with an ocean full of English-speaking dolphins?
Jake: Oh, no. He would revert to his natural state. Speaking to us is very difficult for them.
Boardmember: Then why do they do it?
Jake: Ask him.
Boardmember: Pha —
Alpha: Pha!
Boardmember: Why does Pha speak to Pa?
Alpha: (thrashes his tail, pushing him another foot out of the water and brushing Jake's leg) Pha love Pa

The board is very impressed, and as they leave to return to the mainland, they request Jake to join them for a news conference the next day to share his achievement with the world.

That night, with Jake and Maggie gone, a large yacht drops anchor off shore, and the phone rings with strange orders from Jake. The next day, after getting a runaround at the Foundation's offices and finally learning that the press conference had been cancelled, Jake and Maggie return home to find Alpha and Beta gone, along with the yacht, and his tearful staff explaining how they had transferred the dolphins, confused but believing that they were acting at his behest.

Then Mahoney shows up, having surreptitiously returned to the island unannounced the day before. (Mahoney's function in the story is to give Jake and the audience information that they have to have.) This time, he's more of a cloak-and-dagger type, intimating that he works for the government without giving details. He informs them that David, one of the staff, who is now missing (and is the one that took the phone call "from Jake"), was an explosives expert in the Navy who had been serving a multi-year jail sentence, but had been released due to influence from the Franklin Foundation just before coming to work with them. And that the Board had been aware of the work with Alpha the whole time.

It's decided that things have gone bad, and that the exploitation Jake feared may be much worse than just unwanted commercialism. Sadly, the team releases all the remaining dolphins into the sea.

Meanwhile, we see David is on the yacht, and is training Alpha and Beta for a new task. Harking back to a film shown in the opening sequence of Alpha retrieving floating rings whose shape matched that on a card held up by a trainer, they are learning to identify one of several boats by the flag that it flies, and to attach a "ball" to that boat. The flag in question happens to bear the Great Seal of the President of the United States, and watching are the board members of the Foundation.

One of the board members (played by John Dehner) is satisfied, and tells David to get the "fish" on board so they can leave for their rendezvous with destiny. He had gotten off on the wrong foot with Alpha during the board's visit to the island, and Alpha isn't hopping to quickly enough to suit him. With Beta aboard, he starts shooting at Alpha, who swims off. One trained dolphin is enough, and the yacht steams off.

Alpha returns to the lab, and from what he is able to say about the "ball" and the harness he still has on, Mahoney divines that he had been trained to place a bomb on a ship; later, he comes awake with a start and decides that it is the Presidential yacht that the bad guys have in their sights. With that, Jake tells Alpha to go stop Beta. "Stop Bee. Ball is bad!" Catching up with Beta just as she reaches the President's yacht, he explains to her the change of plan, and shortly thereafter, the members of the board hear an ominous clunk from the bottom of their own ship….

Alpha and Beta return to the lab, where Jake asks Alpha if he stopped Bee, and then very patiently tries to get Alpha to explain which boat is "not". Finally, they learn that the boat with David is "not".

Jake thinks that means it's over, but Mahoney, more attuned to the ways of men of power, says "They'll be coming. I'm leaving". Even as he speaks, an airplane from the Foundation is approaching a landing at the lab. Jake sees that Alpha and Beta have to leave and never return, but the only way he can explain it to them is that bad men are coming, who will hurt Ma and Pa, but not if Pha and Bee go. They're about to leave, but Maggie's words keep them:

Maggie: Ma loves Pha.
Jake: Stop it, Maggie. Let 'em go.
Maggie: Ma loves Bee.
Mahoney, shouting: Everybody loves everybody. Let's get out of here!
To get them to go, Jake turns away and shouts, "Pa is not!". This finally gets them to jump over the net and away. Jake and Maggie are walking down the beach, when they hear one last time:
Alpha: Ma?
Jake: Don't turn around. Keep going.
Alpha: Pa?
(Jake and Maggie walk off the beach into the trees.)
Alpha: Paaaaa...
(Jake and Maggie collapse at the base of a tree. Alpha does a wingover and swims out to sea.)