When David Divine's slim novel was published in tandem with the film's release, the Boy on a Dolphin paperback was heavily decorated with pictures from the movie - a clear indication plot was hardly a major element in the book's construction. (The film itself is so thin on story, one suspects Divine's novel was more of a treatment that someone else fleshed out into a screenplay.)
Dolphin is a fairly straightforward tale of two charismatic men – rogue treasure hunter Victor (snotty Clifton Webb) and American archeologist Jim (Alan Ladd) – in search of a gold statue, a boy riding a dolphin, whose deep underwater location is only known by sponge diver Phadrea (Sophia Loren). Her determination to help Victor snatch the statue from under the Greek government's nose is weakened by a mounting affection for noble Jim. That change in loyalty upsets Iberian boyfriend Rhif (Jorge Mistral), who further manipulates Phaedra in for his own selfish gains.
Webb breezily plays the desexualized Victor as a man in love with pretty things rather than people, and Ladd's Jim is an earnest, principled love interest, as well as a longtime nemesis of slimy Victor. Even when both parties are plainly at war, they manage to have a civil drink or lunch by the shore. Only Rhif provides some shady behaviour, but Dolphin isn't designed as an edgy romantic suspense drama; it's pure travelogue (the Greek isles, coastal towns, and a splendid monastery), with zero spilt blood, bullet holes, or head-smacking (except to Loren, when she becomes the victim in the final reel).
Director Jean Negulesco was already comfy with the wide anamorphic ratio (here 2.35:1), having directed the second ‘scope film, How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) – a movie that also marked the start of the ‘three girls looking for love' template he'd revisit in subsequent glossy, sudsy romantic films, including Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), and The Best of Everything (1959).
Three Coins was also a hybridization of prolonged romantic courting and long sequences that solely existed to show off the Italian countryside, both of which also figure in Dolphin: Loren pinballs from one man to the next, while Negulesco exploits the Greek locations with some indulgent travelogue footage (beautifully shot by Milton Krasner), particularly a ludicrously contrived montage that has Victor being driven in his streamlined (and very hot) Ferrari to the edge of a monastery.
There's also Phaedra's sexual teasing, which occurs in two kitschy scenes designed to show off a bit of local culture: Phaedra sings the film's theme song (in Greek!) to Jim, and a pair of dances that show off Loren's physique. The character of Phaedra basically assembles all the assets that made Loren a star in Europe, and packages them in a glossy production for Loren's American film debut: like Too Bad She's Bad / Peccato Che Sia Una Canaglia (1955), Phaedra's a spunky local girl who knows how to stand up to men, but she harbors a soft, feminine side (seen only when she realizes Jim is the dude she truly loves).
The eventual union between Jim and Phaedra is held off until the final reel not because the filmmakers wanted to maximize sexual tension, but due to the painful fact Alan Ladd was half the size and density of his Amazonian co-star; great pains were taken to create two-shots where Ladd's diminutive height is non-existent (one of the actors is always seated, or Ladd's placed a few feet closer to the camera), and any love scene would've resembled a child trying to grope his healthy Italian auntie.
The characters do lock lips in the end shot, but it's the film's most laughable sequence because Ladd's street chase of Loren is under-cranked, and there's a clumsy smash cut two the pair tumbling and tussling on the ground. Loren resists but calms down when it's clear this strange love was meant to be.
In her American debut, Loren looks ravishing (apparently publicity shots of the actress in her customized diving dress sold quite a few posters) but she's wasted in a role that only occasionally mines her comedic skills (notably in an amusing restaurant scene where she shares her country lunch with Victor). Ladd sticks with his earnest tough guy persona (here reigned in because he's a genial archeologist working for the Greek government), and Negulesco lets Webb do his snotty refined persona, as was done in Three Coins, as well as the floating soap opera, Titanic (1953).
If taken as pure eye candy, Dolphin works, and the film gets extra mileage from composer Hugo Friedhofer, whose gorgeous score (in exquisite stereo) mines the beauty of the film's hummable theme song, as well as cues that infer far more drama and conflict than what exists in the film. It's a great example of a score giving some dimension to an otherwise flatly realized drama.
Most of the underwater scenes were probably shot in a big tank (there's far too many perfect shots with big fish drifting in from of the camera), but Dolphin is an important Cinemascope production that deserves a proper DVD release.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan