Friday Editor’s Pick: Niagara (1953)

by on July 6, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing 6:50, 9:15 at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]


Yes we’ve got “Marilyn!” fever over here at Alt Screen, inspired by Dan Callahan’s fabulous essay on Monroe’s career in honor of the BAM series.


Dan’s description of Marilyn as a full-blooded femme fatale is mighty enticing:

Niagara is maybe Monroe’s most underrated picture, the only one where she gets to play a femme fatale, a meanie, a temptress; this is her Gilda (1946), and director Henry Hathaway films her in chiaroscuro Technicolor with tactful respect and a great feel for her incandescent, almost otherworldly sex appeal. Monroe’s Rose is first seen naked in bed, covered by crumpled bed-sheets, puffing on a cigarette through obscenely glistening, lipstick-red lips and looking at her husband (Joseph Cotton) with contempt. She puts on her nylons in shadow, and when she goes outside and walks away from the camera in a tight-fitting suit, Hathaway knows that just the sight of Monroe walking across the screen is An Event on par with the natural wonders of the picture’s Niagara Falls backdrop.


A few scenes later, Rose appears in a hot pink, low cut, leave-nothing-to-the-imagination dress that might well cause puberty on sight. “She’d like to wear that dress where everybody could see her,” cries Cotton, “right in the middle of Yankee stadium!” Truer words were never spoken, and since Monroe is always being cast as a martyr, it’s worth stating that the sheer exhibitionistic triumph of looking like and being Marilyn Monroe in 1953 must have given her at least fleeting moments of joy and power. Certainly she’s at her best on screen when she’s enjoying that power (especially when she sings) and worst when she’s encouraged to feel sorry for herself. It’s no mistake that she comes fully alive not playing a needy, abused victim, as she does in Don’t Bother to Knock, but as a call-the-cops vixen who loves being looked at and doesn’t feel too many qualms about bumping off a troublesome spouse. The spare, atmospheric Niagara is smart about how to handle Monroe, and she is able to play several different levels of this character at once. We see Rose planning her husband’s murder and then we see her laughing in bed with this same husband after a night obviously spent screwing his brains out. What’s shocking here is that Monroe is able to suggest that Rose enjoys the sex but this enjoyment is kept on a totally separate level from her murder plans.



Another Dan (Kelly), for Cinema Bits:

The first half of Niagara plays out in a by-the-numbers plot to set up the conclusion of the story. You can see where the story is going at this point in time – Rose’s relationship with her husband will come to an end so she can be with her lover… or will it? When the latter half of the film takes over, writer Charles Brackett weaves in a few bends to the storyline that make the movie a consistently gratifying viewing experience. What also works for Niagara, and what makes it so effective as a thriller, is director Henry Hathaway’s background in the film-noir genre. He keeps figures lurking in the corners of the film frame to create a certain sense of unease and to heighten the tension.


Niagara has long been one of my favorite Marilyn Monroe movies, and I think it is undoubtedly the best performance of her career. It was an early departure from the stock comic parts she was given and, along with Bus Stop, proved her worth as a dramatic actress. Her intoxicating blend of sexuality, alluring screen presence and immediate ability to generate sympathy for her characters works fully to her advantage here. She’s wholly believable as a femme fatale, and Joseph Cotton is equally good as a husband driven to the edge by his own insecurities about his marriage. There’s a short scene here that doesn’t entirely work (Marilyn does a brief singing number), but as a thriller, Niagara is completely satisfying from start to finish.


The original New York Times review comments on the emerging bombshell:

Perhaps Miss Monroe is not the perfect actress at this point. But neither the director nor the gentlemen who handled the cameras appeared to be concerned with this. They have caught every possible curve both in the intimacy of the boudoir and in equally revealing tight dresses. And they have illustrated pretty concretely that she can be seductive—even when she walks.


As has been noted, Niagara may not be the place to visit under these circumstances but the falls and Miss Monroe are something to see.



Coleman’s Corner:

Henry Hathaway is a fascinating, intrinsically arresting directors with a keen visual aptitude. His use of frames, arches and other compositionally delineative objects create cleanly-photographed portraits of his characters. These framed portraits usually connote a kind of personal or even metaphysical entrapment, excellently communicated with richly detailed sequences of foreground-background struggles. Those foreground-background struggles usually tell two different character stories in one shot, and Niagara displays this stylistic technique. Hathaway’s affinity for water and water-based settings such as this film and 23 Paces to Baker Street, is interesting to consider as well. He often shoots the background water through a frame, a window or some kind of portal—frequently in close approximation to the characters, drawing the connection between character and setting that helps to distinguish his admittedly workmanlike approach to certain parts of filmmaking, such as pacing.


Niagara is a beautiful, Technicolor film. Melodramatic, as well as splashy both in its brightly colorful visualizations and in its lurid storyline, the film may in some ways belong as much to the 1950s melodrama as to film noir. However, the opening, with Cotten’s acidic, pained and mocking narration is certainly at one with noir: “Why should the Falls drag me down here at five o’clock in the morning? To show me how big they are and how small I am? To remind me they can get along without any help? All right, so they’ve proved it. But why not? They’ve had ten thousand years to get independent. What’s so wonderful about that? I suppose I could, too, only it might take a little more time.”


Where Niagara earns its place in the broader filmic fiefdom of noir is in its psychology, and in its internecine conflicts between Cotten’s dupe and Monroe’s seductress, and between Peters’ intrigued wife and Cotten’s seemingly malevolent intentions toward her. Irony is employed, free from cynicism. A sequence in a bell tower is heartbreakingly beautiful, evocatively photographed by Joseph MacDonald (who photographed John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, Hathaway’s Call Northside 777, and some of Elia Kazan’s directorial work). Chemistry is unnecessary between Cotten and Monroe, since their parts call for, if anything, the opposite—and their screentime together is surprisingly sparse—but the effects her Rose’s marital malpractice has on his George is profoundly brought to life by Cotten in one of the actor’s more offbeat performances. Peters, meanwhile, makes her part register with a performance that balances all of the character’s narrative-driven necessities, including her intelligence and naivete, her gentleness and high-spiritedness. Hathaway allows for the screenplay’s lack of central focus—is it George’s point-of-view from which the film forms itself? Rose’s? Polly’s?—to become a positive attribute, as it squeezes logically unreasonable tension out of George’s whereabouts, motives and location in large swathes of the film, especially when relating from Polly’s observant spectator.


Niagara follows the noirish pattern of sending its protagonist into an entrapping web of betrayal and murder, spurred by lust and greed, giving the protagonist an opportunity to right the course, only to see his choices continually backfire and drag him down into the quicksand of anguish all the more forcefully. In the third act, Cotten’s George scrambles to escape the trap he has, in a hideously ironic manner, fallen into. It is here that the film tightens its grip, losing in atmosphere while gaining in high drama. It may be said that it is in that harrowing but sumptuous bell tower sequence—understandably considered to have been a possible inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock in making Vertigo—where the oneiric qualities of Niagara unmask themselves to describe not a limpidly pellucid dream but a terrifying nightmare. And in a definitive way, Niagara postulates that the viewer reconsider noir, at least ever so briefly. For in Niagara, perhaps the most literal definition of the struggle that lives and breathes in the very heart of film noir may be conceived: a man on a small boat that has run out of fuel, being drawn inexorably to the mighty Niagara falls he so contemptuously recognized as so much greater than himself, drifting to his doom.



Noir of the Week:

Having kicked into full noir gear, Niagara then undergoes a precipitous darkening, as the Cutler (sub)plot recedes into the background and the viewer is rewarded with several dark treats – including a character’s heart-stopping moment of clarity during a morgue corpse-identification; another’s desperate plea to be allowed an illicit identity swap; and a bravura murder set-piece that echoes Hitchcock’s distinctive stylishness.


The usually reliable Peters doesn’t disappoint though, and it occurred to me that a plotline featuring her character as a single ‘Nancy Drew’-ish type becoming entangled in the Loomis’ domestic mess might’ve been taken more seriously – and given the film the noir edge it often lacks. Peter’s Polly makes a connection with George, albeit more out of empathy and pity than attraction – and she does make a fine ‘good girl’ in the ‘good girl’/’bad girl’ dynamic present. Making the most of his sketchy role, Cotten is occasionally riveting in what could have been an invisible turn. His bitter George is an unstable, pain-racked dupe who alternately elicits fear and sympathy.


Finally there is Monroe’s Rose, a Technicolor siren who singes the screen as few others could. Her character’s introduction/development happens in record time – a single wide shot of her laying in bed, apparently nude, legs askew. More a symbol than a flesh and blood dame, Rose embodies all that men desire but can never fully control – which makes George’s psychosis understandable, logical, inevitable. One standout sequence (and a personal fave) begins with Rose exiting her cabin in a form-fitting dress that doesn’t seem to have been put on so much as ignited. Partying with fellow vacationers, she asks that her favorite record be played – and sings along with it when it is. George, watching through their cabin’s blinds, recognizes the song as the one that reminds Rose of another man. Bolting out to crush the disc, the least of George’s concerns is public humiliation – but it should be, as an embarrassing display will ultimately strengthen the theory that he took his own life or vanished. Madness by design.


Blogger Randomaniac:

Henry Hathaway is at home with this material; between his work on Westerns, War Movies, and Films Noir he was the perfect man to attack all the different sides of this story. On the one hand the movie is a travelogue. Ray and Polly Cutler literally going through the various Niagara Falls attractions. We watch them tour the back of the Falls and take a boat ride to the edge of the Safe Zone; the audience also gets copious and gratuitous shots of the Falls and the surrounding countryside.


The other side of the film is a nasty little Noir, with Monroe playing a extremely sexual version of the Femme Fatale. Joseph Cotten plays the most over-the-top version of the crazy Noir Vet this side of Crossfire, and it has a murder plot that results in Monroe’s only on-screen death ever. It was like two different films crashing into each other, and the Falls is repeatedly used as a symbol of this sort of intense clash at the border between dualities: Canada/America, Light/Shadow, Sane/Crazy, Love/Lust, and Life/Death. Hathaway really pulls off this bizarre sense of being on the edge of something both terrifying and beautiful—the audience being pulled between conflicted emotional states and thrashed around like a barrell in a river until the thrilling finale that has one of the only authentic happy endings in all of Noir.


Hathaway wasn’t alone in his stellar craftsmanship. His frequent collaborator, Joseph MacDonald, did the cinematography, and it’s simply outstanding. His use of light is particularly brilliant, and it outshines even the aforementioned Leave Her to Heaven, which was shot well by Leon Shamroy, but didn’t exploit all the effects that a color Noir afforded.


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