Niagara (Film)

Poster for Niagara

One of my favorite recurring features I have on this blog is my Why I Love video series in which I discuss aspects of crime-themed films I find interesting. The idea of those posts is to celebrate a film so while I have been wanting to discuss the 1953 noir film Niagara, I realized that probably wouldn’t be a good fit. The reason is that while it is an interesting film, I think it is a fundamentally flawed one.

The story was an original one, apparently developed in response to an idea from producer Charles Brackett. He wanted a movie set against the backdrop of the majestic falls. It was apparently screenwriter Walter Reisch who added the murder scheme.

Polly and Ray Cutler are visiting Niagara Falls on a belated honeymoon. When they arrive to check in to their reserved cabin, the manager reveals that the couple occupying it have not checked out as they were supposed to. The manager goes to hurry them along but when Rose tells them that her husband, a Korean War vet who has recently been discharged from an army hospital, has been sick for some days and is finally asleep, Polly offers to switch to a less desirable cabin and allow them to stay longer.

Polly and Ray soon notice signs that the marriage between Rose and George Loomis is far from ideal. During a visit to the Falls, Polly notices Rose in a passionate embrace with a man who is not her husband and later that evening George behaves erratically, storming out of the cabin to snatch and break a record his wife was playing. What they don’t know is that Rose and her young man are plotting to take care of George so that they can be together.

It’s a pretty promising setup for a suspenseful murder story. The early parts of the film use the space of the holiday camp well, contrasting Rose’s warmth and outgoing nature with George’s isolation and seeming misanthropy. We repeatedly see him look through the windows, watching his wife yet not really engaging with her, building up this sense of an isolated and perhaps rather troubled man.

The actors cast for the pivotal roles of Rose and George were Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotten. They make for an interesting and somewhat mismatched pair. She is youthful, sensuous and beautiful – he seems sharp, bitter and tired. One of the mysteries that this film never quite gets around to explaining is how the pair ended up together in the first place, dropping a mention that she had been a barmaid. Did she love him but tire of his behavior or was she mercenary and unfaithful from the start? Why is murder necessary rather than just divorce? The film never answers those points clearly.

Both actors exude star power though in quite different ways. Monroe’s career was well established by this point but this film marked a transition to an even bigger level of stardom, amplifying the perception of her as a sex symbol. This is sometimes shown in overt moments such as a shower scene and several scenes that take place in and around bed but it is clear throughout much of the rest of the film as well as the camera seems to linger on her, often for several beats after the dramatic content of a shot has been concluded. Some moments, such as when she dreamily sings along to that record she puts on, seem to strain the pace and can feel a little self-indulgent. They can be charming but they do little to tell the story or to enhance our understanding of the character.

Marilyn Monroe in Niagara
Marilyn Monroe in Niagara (20th Century Fox)

The editing and cinematic choices place a focus upon aspects of Monroe’s sexuality which may cause some to overlook the quality of the performance she gives. While Monroe fits the femme fatale archetype well, she also makes some interesting acting choices that tease out aspects of Rose’s character. Unfortunately however the character as written feels quite limited, at least in terms of what he gives her to say and do, and so while we spend quite a bit of time with her, I never felt that we really get to know her completely.

Joseph Cotten is one of my favorite actors from this era of cinema which no doubt reflects that he had starred in my favorite film of all time just a couple of years before this was made. Like Monroe, he feels like a star and while his performance feels quite constrained at times, perhaps reflecting that he spends much of the film alone or isolated from the characters other than Rose, whenever he is on screen he had my attention, even if he wasn’t the person talking.

The problem in this film is that while Cotten gives a fine rendering of his character’s bitterness and inner turmoil, he feels too big for this part as it appears based on what we know of it. The film needs us to make assumptions about how the film will go and what will happen for a moment late in the film to have its full impact. Instead of surprising however it ends up feeling like an inevitable development, undercutting the power of that moment.

Playing opposite them are Jane Peters as Polly Cutler (who is superb) and Max Showalter as her husband Ray. Their youth and playfulness makes a striking contrast with the personalities of the Loomises, though I found Polly’s warmth and gentle teasing far more pleasant than Ray’s rather tiresome expressions of his jovial nature (which only get worse when the similarly demonstrative figure of Mr. Kettering shows up).

Perhaps the real star of the picture is the view. Niagara Falls is rarely out of sight for much of the film and there are several scenes that show it off to startling effect, made all the more remarkable by the luscious Technicolor film. While I have seen it on film before, it is fascinating to see it so many years ago when the tourism industry was in its infancy. These shots are quite startling and do a lot to convey the power and majesty of the falls which will be important to later developments in the story.

After establishing the characters and the premise, we then observe as Rose and her lover prepare to go through with their plan. One of the things that struck me about this is that while we know their intentions, Hathaway never shares the details of their plan, nor do we ever get to know her lover. As with her relationship with George, this left me with a number of unanswered questions. How did they meet? Was this plan developed now or was it always their intention to murder him? Is Rose serious about him or does she intend him to meet a similar fate in the future?

While I don’t mind that the film is enigmatic on those points, I feel that the distance between us and the plotters prevents a later shift in direction from having the impact it might have done had we been more involved with their plan from the start.

When that moment of transition in the story does come however it feels quite masterful, setting up a pretty effective final act which not only incorporates quite a bit of action, it also features some rather powerful emotional moments too. It’s a pretty effective thriller ending but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it didn’t quite fit comfortably with the material that had preceded it.

That sense that the different elements of this film are not working in harmony is a large part of the reason I think it ultimately fails to hit home the way it should have done. The concept here is good and the film often looks really striking, even close to seventy years later, but the balance of those elements unfortunately feels a little off and a moment that the film is meant to build towards falls flat, feeling a little obvious.

It’s not bad. Just not as good as it could so easily have been.

Niagara (1953)
Directed by Henry Hathaway
Written by Charles Brackett, Richard L. Breen and Walter Reisch
Starring Marilyn Monroe, Joseph Cotten and Jean Peters

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