Why I Love… #129: Niagara

Year: 1953

Director: Henry Hathaway

Stars: Marilyn Monroe, Joseph Cotten, Jean Peters

Marilyn Monroe’s screen presence and charisma are undeniable, it’s been reiterated ad nauseam for decades. These qualities made her a star, but they didn’t grant her a free pass when it came to dramatic roles. Monroe wasn’t a great actor, and the tales of cantankerous directors getting flustered with her are legendary (Billy Wilder refused to cast her in The Apartment after their experiences together on Some Like It Hot). Due to these limitations, Monroe’s star-making vehicles were often demanded less. She was the sugary queen of light romances and musical farces. There are notable exceptions, however. One that I’ve already mentioned in this series is John Huston’s The Misfits, which appeared toward the end of her tragically curtailed career. Another, nearly a full decade earlier, is Henry Hathaway’s Technicolor noir Niagara.

By 1953 the noir cycle had almost exhausted itself, and the increasing popularity of colour had punished it further. It’s hardened tales of femme fatales and morose private eyes were parceled up in the chiaroscuro of monochrome; tropes that had worn close to self-parody on several occasions. Few colour noirs have managed to stand the test of time because of these assumed genre requirements (John Dahl’s acerbic Leave Her to Heaven being a notable exception). Niagara isn’t well-loved, but it’s one I regularly feel a keen urge to return to, and it certainly qualifies as noir. Here Monroe is the dame to die for, presented with almost naked sexuality (her introduction, smoking in bed, is a life-changer), while the film’s opening dialogue, narrated by Joseph Cotten, is as hard-boiled as any Bogart venture; “Why should the falls drag me down” he says ruefully, as the picture adheres to the genre’s penchant for doom and introspection.

Hathaway’s film also adheres to the ‘Pretty ’50s’ aesthetic of the era, soon to be perfected in the melodramas of Douglas Sirk, spiking the sense of styles and sensibilities colliding with one another. America’s post-war prosperity becomes caught up in the violent tendencies of the paperback crime thrillers that inspired the finest noir movies, creating the sense of a country unable to escape a kind of inherent darkness. That the rot will out.

Ray Cutler (Max Showalter) and his new bride Polly (Jean Peters) arrive at the famed Canadian resort only to find the prior occupant of their reserved cabin – Monroe’s sultry Rose Loomis – still present, overstaying her welcome. The newlyweds are relocated to another available cabin, but Rose’s presence – and her evident distance from her own husband George (Joseph Cotten) – add an undercurrent of disquiet to Ray and Polly’s vacation. Later the same day, Polly stumbles upon Rose in the arms of another man. The discovery is disturbing, like a bad omen for their own supposed marital bliss.

Hathaway’s use of colour is at its most audacious when he presents us Rose in an eye-popping magenta dress that compliments the slick varnish of her lipstick. She waltzes into the midst of an open-air dance and has the compère play a slow number called “Kiss” (on which Monroe herself sings), bringing the assembled couples together. Her impact on all is that of a goddess. She is Venus, reveling in the aura of amore she’s wholly aware she’s responsible for. The moment is starkly broken by George, who storms out of his cabin to break the record into pieces and silence the heady atmosphere. The second such disruption in the romantic mood in as many minutes. Niagara is about hard truths hidden between delightful fantasies.

George vocalises his (and the film’s) pessimistic worldview in a silhouetted conversation with Polly, that plays more like a cryptic confessional; the slats of the blinds in his cabin like the confession booth’s screen between them. George appears to have gratingly accepted his role as cuckold in his marriage to Rose, and his disappearance marks the third knock to the idylls of marriage for Ray and Polly. Hathaway frames the search for George – and the discovery of ‘his’ body – against the roiling waves of the falls. Trouble indeed. A body is found, but soon afterward Polly is ‘visited’ by George, alive and well. The walking dead is the last straw for Ray, now totally disenfranchised.

Rose has been playing the dutiful role of distraught widow and, as is customary for the genre, we’re predisposed to suspect her culpability, however much of a helpless ingenue she appears. The script weaponises the deeply instilled misogyny of the genre against the viewer – what else are we to expect? The objectification of Monroe is something the picture even seems willing to comment on. Polly poses in a swimsuit for Ray – alluring, a commodity herself – but even she is cast in the shadow of Rose, who stands in the way of her light. Monroe’s dominance as a perceived sex symbol made literal on screen. But Niagara isn’t some coded feminist flip on the tropes of noir. Rose really is guilty; the man found dead is her furtive lover, murdered by George in a botched attempt to get rid of him. The requirements of a moralistic story preclude any more radical advancements. Rose must, ultimately, pay.

Still, overlooking the substantive nature of women is key to one of the plot’s pivotal moves. Ray doesn’t for a moment consider that Polly genuinely did see George; she is wholly dismissed and given a glass of water to quell her hysteria. We in the audience – who have shared her experience – know that this is selective deafness from Ray, born out of frustration and sexism. As George pursues Polly beneath the falls, seeking her collusion, Ray’s (in)convenient absence from the drama allows it to perpetuate. It’s also key to the chain of events that leads to the film’s clunky river-bound finale, in which Polly finds herself stranded aboard a boat with George, poised to hurtle over the falls. The effects render the sequence as quite poorly dated, but Hathaway fumbles the action itself and Niagara‘s denouement fails to capitalise on the suspense of the scenario. It feels half-hearted; a reluctance that at least mirrors George’s role as reluctant murderer. Neither do we know if Ray learns to trust his wife in future. Hathaway (perhaps rightly) prefers a swift end to his picture. The fallout of the drama is left for us to imagine.

Niagara isn’t a perfect film by any means, but its wannabe Hitchcockian vibe – and its certainly lurid enough – actually manages to prefigure two of the venerated director’s classics to come. First of all, its very setting seems possibly to have inspired the final machinations of North by Northwest, which mines another popular tourist spot for its dangerous potential. Secondly, with Monroe violently exiting the drama about a half-hour before its conclusion, the future spirit of Janet Leigh’s notorious expulsion from Psycho rears its head. Monroe’s star power is used as a powerful bluff for how far the picture will go regards to her character’s safety. Strangled by George, her exit is shocking and removes any sense of a security net around the remaining cast.

In spite of its deficiencies – or maybe, strangely, because of them – I’ve always felt a great fondness for Niagara. It feels like an underdog. Monroe’s dramatic chops remain so-so, but she more than fulfills the demands of the role here. While a great many other actors may have made more of the part, its hard now to imagine anyone else doing it. She made it iconic in that ineffable way she so often managed. Part of that is her established allure, unquestionably. Part of it also feels wrapped up in how Rose’s swift exit from the picture – in hindsight – mirrors Monroe’s own untimely death. In spite of Rose’s faults, we wish she had remained, had survived George. Had managed to thrive again, as she did at the dance and, presumably, so many times before. Niagara is redolent with omens, but this may be its most striking, and it’s saddest.

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