Film: Very Good
DVD Transfer: Excellent
DVD Extras: n/a
Released: October 25, 2016
Genre: Romance / Suspense / Travelogue
Synopsis: Local sponge diver Phaedra is torn between love, greed, and national pride when she discovers a rare boy perched on a dolphin deep underwater.
Special Features: Theatrical Trailer.
Based on David Divine’s novel, 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 / simple island girl Phaedra (Sophia Loren, making her English language film debut). Her profit-driven determination to help Victor snatch the statue from under the Greek government’s nose is weakened by a mounting affection for Jim, and the seething guilt from deliberately misdirecting their search to waste his time, money, and hope.
Phaedra’s increasingly obvious enjoyment in going out to sea with Jim upsets Iberian boyfriend Rhif (Jorge Mistral), who further manipulates Phaedra for his own selfish gains, which include money, marriage, and total dominion over his fiery babe’s unbridled independence.
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 civil encounters by the shore. Only Rhif provides some shady behaviour, but Dolphin isn’t designed as an edgy suspense drama; whatever lay in Divine’s novel, the film version is more of a travelogue (the Greek isles, coastal towns, and a splendid monastery), with zero spilt blood (Phaedra’s nicked leg excepted), bullet holes, or head-smacking within its dreamy 111 min. running time.
Violence is inferred almost exclusively by Rhif, who likes to show off his big folding knife, and smacks his lesser partner, rummy Dr. Hawkins (Laurence Naismith) twice in the face. When the slaps occur, the reactions of Phaedra and Hawkins are of shame for Rhif, having gone too far in spite of their agreement to steal, hide, and sell a local treasure to a globe-trotting scoundrel as a team. Up until that lone act of violence, Negulesco’s kept the film in a dreamy state, where danger lurks but never growls or shows its claws; and the local police are reduced to an Athenian government official who keeps a silent distance before setting a small trap to catch Victor acquiring stolen national treasures.
Guilt from betrayal and mounting love takes the forefront, and when rifles are drawn, they’re quickly lowered and the final confrontation between good and greed (not evil) involves conversation and erudite innuendo. The lack of overt action and gruff talk could be seen as a detriment, but the script by Ivan Moffat (The Wayward Bus, Tender is the Night, Black Sunday) and Dwight Taylor (Top Hat, Pickup on South Street) is filled with little dry witticisms and slices of broad comedic behaviour, and Negulesco extracts unexpectedly strong performances from unlikely figures: Ladd’s tough guy image is softened, but the actor does a fine job showing a man suspecting he’s being played for a fool, but unable to speak up because he’s transfixed by this local beauty with whom he’s spending long days; and Loren takes a loud, boisterous buxom babe and renders her equally human through humour, subtle reactions, and the actress’s giant eyes that can’t be ignored when tears start to well up.
Director Jean Negulesco was already comfy with the wide anamorphic ratio (here it’s 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 (which also starred Webb) 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 but jaw-drooping gorgeous travelogue footage, particularly a ludicrously contrived montage that has Victor being driven in his fancy sports car (an Aston Martin?) to the edge of a monastery, and continued via donkey and a crate-like ‘lift’ to its summit.
There’s also Phaedra’s teasing, which occurs in scenes designed to show off a bit of local culture: Phaedra sings the film’s main theme – credited as “Tirafio music by Takis Morakis” – in Greek(!) to Jim; and a pair of dances that show off Loren’s healthy 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 substantially shorter than his 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 as he leaps and grabs Loren’s legs, causing her to stumble and fall. Ladd then tumbles onto Loren, and besides a brief two-shot, they tussle in separate shots to minimize our ability to compare their differing stature until Loren stops resisting, calms down, smiles, and makes it clear the Jim-Phaedra love was meant to be.
If taken as photogenic, light suspense-romance, Dolphin works, and the film gets extra mileage from composer Hugo Friedhofer, whose gorgeous, Oscar-nominated score mines the beauty of the film’s hummable theme song, as well as cues built around some striking variations. Instead of recapping the melody verbatim, many tracks blush, eddy, and swirl like the Mediterranean waters, and it’s worth pointing out that in place of sound design, virtually all underwater scenes are supported by Friedhofer’s music which shimmers with colours, is darkened by multiple shadows, and illuminated by streaks of melodic light that still sound fresh. They’re extraordinary examples of scoring craftsmanship, and the faith between a filmmaker and a composer.
Most of the underwater scenes with the actors 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 offers images which surely pleased the Greece’s tourism board. The film’s anti-theft message is both stark and oft-repeated: stealing national treasures is morally repugnant! One wonders if its integration into the script was also a not-quite stealth message to the British Government to return the Elgin Marbles – the intricate sculptures from the Parthenon currently in the British Museum – back to their rightful owners. Jim’s first scenes have him arriving at the foot of the Parthenon, ascending the outcropping, walking through the Parthenon, and chatting with colleagues with the structure in the background!
Until 2016, Dolphin’s had never been released on DVD in North America. TCM televised a widescreen transfer around 2008, likely a master from an aborted laserdisc edition. Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray sports a stunning HD transfer that’s sharp, rich in colour and detail, and although not indicated on the sleeve, it contains a 4.0 Surround Sound mix. The audio might need a bit of a boost via an amp, but all the nuances of Friedhofer’s score come through in a fairly robust recording.
Kino’s disc sports a trailer (heavily tracked with Bernard Herrmann’s music from Fox’s other underwater CinemaScope fishing drama, Beneath the 12-Mile Reef), but little else, which makes this another classic missed opportunity in assembling a definitive special edition. The label’s been correcting that ongoing issue by adding commentaries and interviews to more recent Fox and MGM catalogue titles, making Dolphin a prime candidate for a later redo, if not something Twilight Time might pick-up and bolster with their usual combination of commentary + isolated score tracks.
This was a prestigious Fox production – the movie edition of Divine’s novel is literally packed in the middle with pages of film stills – featuring top stars, its star CinemaScope director, and one of its top composers – and the film certainly gave Cinerama’s travelogue films a run for their money, offering plot, characters, and romance in place of montages in otherwise impressive multi-panel widescreen. Why it took this long for such a gem to reach North America on disc is perhaps tied to the studios stepping away from deep catalogue mining around 2006, but Kino’s BR fixes that with a stunning transfer no Ladd, Loren, Webb, Negulesco, or Friedhofer fan can do without.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan, revised 2017
Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review