Niagara (1953)

Director: Henry Hathaway

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

In the fifth installment of Noir City Chicago, the programmers decided to take a risk: they devoted an entire day to Technicolor noir. For most people, it’s not noir without the black shadows and knives of white light that pierce the dark doings of society’s underbelly in a black-and-white film. Eddie Muller, president of the Film Noir Foundation and opening-weekend host of Noir City Chicago, says that he considers noir to be a state of mind, a place of psychological pathology, and therefore, the candy-colored films of the day’s line-up earn their place on a film noir program. While I can’t agree that all of the films, even Leave Her to Heaven (1943) and its deranged central character played by Gene Tierney, were anything but an approximate fit, one was noir in spades: Niagara.

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For many people, Niagara is the Hitchcock film Hitchcock never made, employing as it does some of his typical devices—a blonde, the threat of nature, a famous location, murder most foul. But the resemblance stops there. Niagara’s blonde is a nasty bit of work, not an essentially good-natured damsel in need of rescue, and Niagara Falls is no mere trick to goose up the film’s climax, but rather an integral part of the entire film. Oh, and the bell tower employed in Niagara and Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) are both borrowed from other films that reach at least as far back as the first iteration of The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1911.

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Noir is also associated with cities, where it is thought that crime and vice find their natural home. Thus, the incongruousness of the setting—not only the falls, but also having the action take place in the parklike town of Niagara City in Canada—offers a more egalitarian notion of where corruption lives. Instead of a dark nightclub or seedy motel, our cast of characters meet and play out their furtive drama in a clean, well-run motel with individual cabins overlooking the falls. It is through the ingenuity of director Henry Hathaway that such wide-open spaces provide so many claustrophobic hiding places for the treacherous and tormented souls with lust and murder on their minds.

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A voiceover that is dropped after the opening scene comes from George Loomis (Joseph Cotten), a down-on-his-luck Korean War veteran and failed sheep rancher who is recuperating from a nervous breakdown at the motel with Rose (Marilyn Monroe), his bored bombshell of a wife. He tells us he was drawn to the falls one very early morning, and we watch him slip, fall, get soaked, before returning to his darkened cabin, where only moments before, Rose quickly put out her cigarette and feigned sleep so as not to have to deal with him.

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Another couple, Polly Cutler (Jean Peters) and her salesman husband Ray (Max Showalter), are questioned about their visit to Canada by a border guard. The Cutlers won a trip to the city where Ray’s company, which manufactures shredded wheat, is headquartered, and are using the prize as the honeymoon they never had. They are booked into the cabin where the Loomises are staying, but Rose begs the motel manager to let her exhausted husband rest, and the Cutlers agree to take another cabin. The reason for Rose’s plea to let George sleep becomes clear to Polly when she and Ray visit the falls that morning, and she spots Rose kissing another man (Richard Allen) in a secluded area next to the cascading water. She and Ray will soon be up to their necks in trouble as the adulterers’ plot to kill George takes some unexpected twists.

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It would easy to dismiss the film as part travelogue, as the attractions of Niagara Falls—the Maid of the Mist, the Cave in the Winds, Prospect Point, Rainbow Bridge—are explicitly named or photographed. But the operations of these attractions provide markers to the unfolding plot, while offering chills of their own. For example, people who go on the Maid of the Mist, or indeed, any attraction near the falls, suit up with hooded raincoats and boots, leaving their shoes behind. This becomes important when George is lured to the falls by Rose’s lover, with his unclaimed shoes as evidence that he went into the dark caverns beneath the falls but never emerged. When Polly is pursued by George at the Cave in the Winds, the flimsy-looking, slippery wooden walkways and railings, which are as they appear in real life, look like the recipe for disaster they almost prove to be. The falls themselves are a metaphor for rampaging, reckless passion, a current not usually commented upon even though Niagara Falls is one of the most popular honeymoon destinations in the world. It may look ridiculous for Monroe and Allen to kiss while wrapped head to toe in rain gear (shades of the full-body condoms in The Naked Gun [1988]!), but the aptness of the wet and wild image in a remote corner of a very public place is perfection.

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In spite of a beautifully haunted performance by Cotten as a good man driven to the dark side by his bad luck and cheating wife, this film is all about its women. Monroe is at her best in this film, conveying her feelings with a look of 100-proof emotion. She lies convincingly about being worried about her missing husband, yet gives herself the chance to display a self-satisfied look when nobody’s watching. An impromptu party in the motor court has her request the kids with the record player put on “Kiss” (an original song written for the movie by Lionel Newman and Haven Gillespie). Monroe sings along with the record, but not every word, the thought of her lover Patrick occasionally silencing her to revel in her erotic memories. A more nakedly carnal look has never passed over a face than when she observes Patrick in a souvenir shop where they pass a quick glance to set the wheels of their plot in motion. For every leer Monroe gets from the men in the film, this one look exposes the potent inferno of a woman’s lust, a repudiation of everything ’50s morality tried to preach. And when the jealous, neurotic, morose George suddenly shows a happiness and vitality the morning he is supposed to be murdered, there’s no doubt how Rose lulled him into a compliant frame of mind. She’s a quintessential femme fatale, and little about her sexual manipulation is hidden from view.

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Peters, a beautiful woman, nonetheless is knowing about her appeal when compared with Monroe. When Ray asks Polly why she doesn’t wear the type of midriff-baring, form-fitting dress Monroe has on, she says ruefully, “ For a dress like that, you’ve got to start laying plans when you’re about 13,” knowing full well that puberty separates such forces of nature as Rose from other women. (As a side note, sexy Anne Baxter turned down the role of Polly because she didn’t want to compete with Monroe.) Polly is no patsy, however. She feels sorry for George, but she understands that he’s not as much of a victim as he pretends to be and may have a violent relationship with Rose when she sees him break the recording of “Kiss” into pieces with his bare hands.

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The film takes perhaps an unintentional dig at company men—Showalter looks and acts like he stepped out of a used-car commercial, as does his boss, played by Jack Benny’s jovial announcer Don Wilson. However, the police in this film aren’t the standard-issue bumblers and blusterers. I would feel pretty safe being protected by Denis O’Dea’s Inspector Starkey, and a rescue at the falls is well coordinated and suspenseful.

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A realistic, well-wrought script by Billy Wilder’s regular collaborators Charles Brackett (who also produced Niagara), Walter Reisch, and Richard Breen fills the film with details that ensure the entire enterprise isn’t overwhelmed by either Monroe or the falls. Hathaway realizes those details to make this film come alive, from the daily routine of the security guard at the carillon where song requests turn into killers’ codes to provisioning a boat for a day of fishing. I particularly liked a small moment when George picks a lipstick tube off the floor, its case glittering with multicolored rhinestones, as beautiful and false as his wife. Indeed, in this moment alone, Hathaway shows that Technicolor in the right hands fits noir like a blood-stained glove.

  • Felix Gonzalez, Jr. spoke:
    27th/08/2013 to 11:09 pm

    Wonderful, Marilyn! I probably haven’t seen this movie since I was in high school, more than 10 years ago, but it has always remained in my mind as a particularly effective noir. And yes, I totally agree about films like LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN not really being noir (at least not according to my definition), in spite of the presence of a great femme fatale. But here, Marilyn Monroe is icily effective and calculating, far from the dumb blonde with which she would become pigeonholed (and to my eyes, she was never more gorgeous). The film is a Technicolor treasure, but it paints a world as black as night. Wow, I really need to see this again!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    28th/08/2013 to 9:53 am

    Hi Felix,

    I’m a big fan of this film, and seeing it on the big screen really helped reinforce what a presence Marilyn Monroe was. We’re all mesmerized by her beauty and sexual aura, but to see it 10 feet high is to be impressed beyond imagining. She was a very good actress, and this film gives her the chance to demonstrate that in spades.

  • Syd Henderson spoke:
    31st/08/2013 to 1:32 pm

    Niagara! Slowly I turned…step by step.. inch by inch…

  • Hilary Barta spoke:
    4th/09/2013 to 5:21 pm

    Marilyn, I also love NIAGARA, and was sorry I missed seeing the DCP of it at Noir City. I completely agree with you about Monroe’s performance. She was never better in a dramatic role, and she looks amazing in Technicolor.

  • chris schneider spoke:
    26th/09/2013 to 4:31 pm

    Thought of this film always, for me, leads to thought of Bertolucci’s LA LUNA, where the adolescent young hero gets laid during a showing of the Hathaway.

    As for Monroe v. Peters, I remember that Sarris wrote how, when he saw the film, the male portion of the audience seemed to prefer Peters.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    26th/09/2013 to 8:53 pm

    Chris – That’s interesting about Monroe v. Peters. I’m not surprised. I think most people prefer those they can picture themselves with. Monroe is just too unreachable.

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