NIAGARA  (1953)

The theatrical trailer for this film is almost as good as the film itself. Shot in Black & White (the film is presented in color), the trailer opens with a breathtaking shot of Niagara Falls. Then these words appear on screen:

“A raging torrent of emotion that even nature can’t control! NIAGARA! And…….MARILYN MONROE!

The trailer continues with scenes from the film. It concludes with another look at the Falls. This time, Miss Monroe’s face is superimposed over the Falls and these words appear:

“NIAGARA and MARILYN MONROE…..the two most electrifying sights in the world!!

NIAGARA and MARILYN MONROE……the high water mark in suspense!!”

With a buildup like that, you can expect a pretty good movie experience. And this movie doesn’t disappoint. Released by 20th Century-Fox and directed by Henry Hathaway, this drama is filled with Noir imagery and sensibilities. But its primary reason for being made was for Fox to promote Monroe, then the fastest rising actress, or more accurately, sensation, in Hollywood. Monroe had broken into films in the late 1940s with only minor success. Her luck changed when she appeared in a small role in THE ASPHALT JUNGLE for director John Huston at MGM in 1950. The same year she did another small role in ALL ABOUT EVE, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz at Fox. The studio gave her a contract and promoted her vigorously. While she was mostly cast in comedies, she also got her chance at serious drama in Fritz Lang’s CLASH BY NIGHT and Roy Baker’s DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK. In NIAGARA, Monroe was given her first and only “evil” character to play, a woman who plots to kill her husband so she can run off with another man. After this, Fox never let their gorgeous star play the bad girl again. A real shame, because her character in NIAGARA is perfectly suited to her hyper-sexual image.

The story, by Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch and Richard Breen, has married couple Polly and Ray Cutler (Jean Peters and Casey Adams) arriving at Niagara Falls for a belated honeymoon. They get involved in the lives of another couple, Rose and George Loomis (Miss Monroe and Joseph Cotten). George seems unstable and very jealous of his beautiful young wife. Rose tells the Cutlers that George has recently been in a military mental hospital and she’s concerned about his violent, erratic behavior. When the Cutlers are taking a tour of the Falls, Polly sees Rose kissing another, much younger man, Patrick (Richard Allan). We learn that Rose and her lover plan to kill George, making it look like suicide. Patrick attempts to throw George down into the Falls, but George kills him instead. Rose tells the police her husband is missing and Patrick’s body is found, but is assumed to be George’s body. When Rose goes to the morgue to identify her husband and sees Patrick’s body instead, she collapses and is taken to a hospital. George goes to Polly and tells her of Rose’s deception and asks Polly to let everyone thing he’s really dead. Rose, fearing for her life, tries to leave Niagara Falls. George confronts her and strangles her. He attempts to escape the police by stealing a boat that Polly inadvertently is in. The boat runs out of gas and is headed toward the Falls. George manages to get Polly to safety before he and the boat go over the Falls. George is killed.

Once Miss Monroe has left the film, it becomes necessary to quickly tie up the loose ends and finish the story. Admittedly, the watery climax is exciting, but although Jean Peters is a likable and attractive actress, she is unable to rouse the same level of emotional involvement as Monroe. The movie is, of course, also somewhat of a travelogue because of the amazing scenery. It also serves as a kind of historical record of what this beautiful location looked like in 1953. Undoubtedly it is a completely different place in this day and age. NIAGARA, as a rather typical, big budget Hollywood studio product, delivers the goods on all levels. Most definitely worth seeing, and worthy of study for its Noirish quality.

For anyone whose only experience of Marilyn Monroe is the succession of “dumb blondes” she played to perfection in films like GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES and HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE, her other two releases of 1953, or THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH (1955), seeing her play a genuine femme fatale in a dramatic story may be a little shocking. In my opinion, she gives one of her very best performances as Rose Loomis. It’s possible that even 20th Century-Fox didn’t expect her to be so good playing bad, and that’s why they never gave her another chance at it! Veteran actor Joseph Cotten, by this time looking a little haggard in middle age, does an excellent job as a man who just wants to possess the beautiful creature who happens to be his wife. He personifies the traditional Noir male who is driven to destruction by a duplicitous female.Most of his scenes take place in the darkness of the honeymoon cabin he shares with Rose. He is rarely seen outside in the light, and when he is, he seems not to belong there. While George Loomis ends up as a killer we still see him as a sympathetic character, especially at the end when he saves Polly’s life.

Rose, although evil, also manages to get the audience’s sympathy. If she had been played by any other actress, that may not have been the case. But when Rose is pursued by George and killed, we care about her. Maybe its because the viewer sees Rose as such an amazingly sexual creature that deserves all the ecstasy she can possibly get. And if she has to bump off her troubled husband and take up with a young stud to do it, well, why not? Of course it isn’t that simple or carnal, but remember: this was 1953, when the post-war public was completely dazzled and fascinated with the image of Marilyn Monroe that she, and Fox, were serving up on the big screen. the public was on Marilyn’s side, and therefore was also on Rose’s side. The complexity of Rose was completely bound to the reality, or what the public assumed was the reality, of Marilyn the actress.

Early in the film, we are presented with Miss Monroe in a pink dress that, as George describes it, is cut so low you can see her kneecaps. During this extended scene, the camera forgets all about Niagara Falls for a while and takes us on a tour of the Monroe image. Real? Manufactured? A makeup miracle? Does it matter? It exists. And the young woman who lived in that image seemingly takes immense pleasure in letting us look. Much has been said over the years about Marilyn’s mysterious relationship with the camera. Many people said she was rather ordinary and unexceptional until the light of the camera enfolded her. Then she somehow transformed herself into the glimmering star she wanted herself to be. Marilyn Monroe, not Norma Jean, the troubled girl from a broken home who was shy and unsure of herself. In this sequence in NIAGARA, with Rose showing off in the pink dress, we can actually see this transformation happen. For a moment, she is in partly in shadow, but suddenly the light flickers across her face. Her lips are parted, and she seems to kiss the light as it caresses her. And so Norma Jean receives the light that transforms her into Marilyn Monroe. A raging torrent of emotion that even Norma Jean couldn’t control.


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