The Day of the Dolphin
Perhaps the most bizarre thing out of all the bizarre things about The Day of the Dolphin is that one of its posters scrupulously sets out its entire dastardly plot, something the movie itself doesn’t outline until fifteen minutes before the end. Mike Nichols reputedly made this – formerly earmarked for Roman Polanski, Jack Nicholson and Sharon Tate, although I’m dubious a specific link can be construed between its conspiracy content and the Manson murders – to fulfil a contract with The Graduate producer Joseph Levine. It would explain the, for him, atypical science-fiction element, something he seems as comfortable with as having a hairy Jack leaping about the place in Wolf.
The Day of the Dolphin would have made much more sense as a Disney movie, one in which a talking dolphin – he’s incredibly endearing, his pre-Gizmo speech provided by screenwriter Buck Henry, it seems – is inveigled into a plot to kill the President of the United States. And he would have too, if it hadn’t been for those meddlesome kids. Sadly, however, there are no meddlesome kids in the actual picture. Instead, only a typically gruff George C Scott, whose choices of material post-Oscar seemed every bit as erratic as they did before he won.
Whatever you think of the plausibility of the movie (try substituting any other given creature into the poster line and see how it sounds: “Unwittingly, he trained a lobster to kill the President of the United States”) the most glaring part is how it never finds a workable structure. The first “act” is all preamble, establishing Dr Jake Terrell (Scott) and his wife Maggie (Trish Van Devere) as trainers of dolphins, teaching them to speak English. But on the sly, such that even their source of funding, the Franklin Foundation, isn’t (to their knowledge) aware of what they’re doing. Thus, the initial conflict is their facing how to deal with the knowledge becoming public.
Paul Sorvino plays (government) agent Mahoney, arriving on the island to take an inconvenient butcher’s, but the implication he’s up to no good turns out to be misdirection; one of Jake’s own staff is ex-military, and once they have been kidnapped, the dolphins are trained to carry a limpet mine to take out the US President’s yacht. Jake and Mahoney never even get to confront the antagonists, who at any rate never set out quite why they’re doing what they’re doing or where their sympathies lie (other than not being with the President). It’s the dolphins themselves who defuse the situation, if not the bomb (the cunning flippers attach it to the villains’ boat instead. Hurrrah!)
The Day of the Dolphin isn’t an unlikeable movie; I might suggest the thriller – or whatever genre blend this purports to be – wasn’t really Nichols’ strong suit, but he did a terrific job with nuke-threat-propaganda picture Silkwood when he returned to narrative cinema after an eight-year absence. The problem is, at its core, Henry’s screenplay, because it has no spine. Or at best a crooked one. Issues of tone come later. As it is, though, I’d much rather watch this than the director’s turgid The Fortune, the picture that caused his sabbatical.
Time Out’s Geoff Andrew – whom I’m guessing isn’t a fan of the director’s oeuvre, called The Day of the Dolphin “A bizarre and often ridiculous attempt to merge documentary, suspense and comedy that is marginally less silly than Nichols’ best-loved film, The Graduate”. It isn’t ever, though, a comedy, even given that Scott has a few choice lines here and there (in respect of a ruse to get him away from the island, whereby the man he is supposed to see calls in sick, his PA queries “May I tell the director that you asked after him?” His reply: “Only if he lives”).
Pauline Kael’s response was more telling. She was not keen on the cutsie effect the picture had, particularly revolted that the makers “can think of no way to interest us in dolphins except by dubbing them with plaintive, childish voices and turning them into fishy human babies full of love for Pa” (she was clearly so incensed she didn’t remember, or failed to observe, that only one of the dolphins, Alpha, speaks). She further suggested, inaccurately, “The picture will probably upset more children than any other movie since Bambi”; she was referring to the ending, in which Scott spurns the endangered mammals and “forces the whimpering babies to leave their home forever. It’s an ugly-souled, manipulative movie”. Albeit, it seemed to have a strong effect on the few impressionable youngsters who DID see it.
Her outrage suggests its quality of “cheaply effective anthropomorphic tear-jerking” really got to her, despite protesting that “It’s too archaic for adults, and it can be agonising, and finally heart-breaking, to children”. But let’s face it: the ending is little more than a clear inverse of The Jungle Book. Albeit, the separation there is for the safety of the human, whereas here it is “How terrible people are; if only we could be like the dolphins”.
Jake: I always thought you worked for the people that pay you.
Mahoney: I work for the guys that pay me to watch the guys that pay you. And then there are, I imagine, some guys that are paid to watch me.
It was Kael’s view that “The movie exploits Watergate and the assassinations for a despairing attitude towards corruption…” However, the government corruption plot was pre-existing, and can be found in Robert Merle’s 1967 Un animal doué de raison (if different to Henry’s). Additionally, the theme itself is entirely germane to the movie’s ultimate inspiration: the work of Dr John Lilly. That said, everything espoused by cynical Mahoney is pertinent to a jaded take on the establishment. If Kael objected to it, it wasn’t because the substance was unfair, but because it offended her establishment sensibilities. As Mahoney notes of Jake’s naivety: “There are two or three million people working for the government, and that’s not including the military. Did you think E Pluribus Unum was engraved on anything other than our small change? Or hadn’t you been living on this planet?”
Dr Lilly was variously influential on cinematic fare, most overtly on The Mind Benders and Ken Russell’s Altered States. He’s generally remembered as one of the foremost minds of the hippy era, in terms of expanding consciousness, having pioneered the use of isolation tanks (Altered States), self-experimenting with them on ketamine, and through his further self-medication discovering higher ET powers watching over us via ECCO Earth Coincidence Control Office (warning of nuclear apocalypse, no less). And, alternately, a presiding SSI – Solid State Intelligence – in the form of a malevolent AI. He tried telling President Ford of the nukes/computers threat. Had a NDE-esque experience. Taught at the dubious Esalen Institute (see Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice). But his background prior to such “achievements” was much less “groovy”. As Charlie Williams observed: “Today, however, Lilly is remembered not as an insidious 1950s brainwashing experimenter, but instead as a guru of the counterculture, the human potential movement, and the 1960s psychedelic scene”. Indeed, there are parallels to Timothy Leary, a CIA informant, in terms of influence; as Lilly had documented ties to the military, assuming they were ever entirely severed would be extremely naïve.
He was at bare minimum known to have briefed the military about his work – in mapping the brain, through implanted electrodes, and isolation tank studies, and if he ostensibly claims to have left NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences) because he didn’t want his work used in the field of mind control, he was nevertheless happy to receive funding for his (dolphin-centric) Communications Research Institute from the Air Force, NASA, NIMH, National Science Foundation and the Navy.
So, whether or not he was involved in MKUltra “directly”, he was evidently highly influential on its precepts: “Lilly claimed that the use of sensory isolation, electrostimulation of the brain, and the recording and mapping of brain activity could be used to gain ‘push-button’ control over motivation and behaviour. This research, wrote Lilly, could eventually lead to ‘master-slave controls directly of one brain over another’”.
Notably, when quizzed about his work at the outset, Jake evasively claims “I don’t know anything about the military and the government, and we pay very little attention to each other”. From his NIMH work, Lilly produced Programming and Metaprogramming the Human Biocomputer, “a training manual for the exploration of consciousness, describing how, through using isolation tanks, psychedelic drugs, and meditation techniques, one could learn to program and reprogram one’s brain”. Per Jay Dyer, in an act as proto-MKUltra as it gets, Lilly dosed children in isolation tanks, and quotes him thus: “In the child, automatic metaprogramming implantation (or externally forced metaprogramming) persisting as metaprograms below the levels of awareness in the adult, can be controlling for the later adult programs, adult thinking and adult behaviour. Energy can be taken from some of these automatic metaprograms and transferred to the self-metaprogram with special techniques and special central states, chemically evoked”.
Whatever the ostensible later development of Lilly’s interests, his early work is unmistakable in tone. As Dyer says “With Dr Lilly, the human mind itself is merely a biological computer that could be altered, de-patterned, reprogrammed and modified at will by a handler, and thus an equally complex non-biological computer could also be reconstructed. Once again, we see MK Ultra directly connects to transhumanism”. Williams uses the term “cybernetic spiritualism” to describe Lilly’s work, and it’s a chillingly apt term for the debasement of higher seeking and connection.
Dyer dismissed Lilly’s dolphin work, which included getting them to talk – per The Day of the Dolphin – and dosing them with LSD – not so much – as “preposterous tax payer funded nonsense”. Which it may have been, but Dyer should know better than to assume the kneejerk response. And on the subject thereof, besides the dosing with LSD and the mind control, another area failing to make it into the Nichols movie was the rumpo. To persuade – or assist – the dolphin in counting from two to ten, he was offered a bribe in the form of sex. Since moving him in with his fellow females was too much hard work, his teacher Margaret Lovatt would masturbate him when his sexual urges arose. It’s said he (Peter) died of broken heart when she left him.
It seems that, far from Brave New World – which is a eugenicist telling how it is – influencing Lilly in how not to be, his path took him in the very direction of such applied control (Huxley also influenced Esalen). Scott, Sorvino, and Fritz Weaver (Demon Seed) are very good value, the Bahamas makes for a nice location, and Buck does good dolphin, but yeah, Nichols was the wrong guy for this movie. The Day of the Dolphin either should have been, as suggested, a Disney flick or an all-out psych-out affair, of the sort Russell, Roeg or Cammell might have made. Playing it straight, when it needed to be dosed in LSD, ketamine and excursions into dolphin consciousness, was the wrong move.
First published by Now in Full Color on 25/06/22.