05 May 2009


Niagara Still Steamy and Raging Today
By Kristin Battestella

It had been awhile since I last saw the 1953 Marilyn Monroe vehicle Niagara. On my recent viewing, however, I was pleasantly surprised that the suspense and heat still holds up for today’s audiences.

Finally taking a long overdue honeymoon to Niagara Falls, Ray (Max Showalter) and Polly Cutler (Jean Peters) can’t seem to catch a break once they reach the natural spot for lovers. Also staying at their hotel are George (Joseph Cotton) and his wife Rose (Marilyn Monroe). Although George is rumored to be a mentally ill veteran, Rose bubbles about town and mingles with the younger crowd- much to her older, disturbed husband’s chagrin. When Polly and Ray explore the Falls, Polly sees Rose kissing a man named Patrick (Richard Allan). The two are lovers, and their plan to rid themselves of George and Niagara has been set in motion. Unfortunately, things don’t go to according to plan.

Of course, we can’t talk about Niagara unless we talk about darling Marilyn, her whispy delivery, and her low-cut, tight dresses. Despite being known for her personal life and quintessential sex pot status, Monroe’s (How to Marry A Millionaire, Bus Stop, The Misfits) acting here isn’t too bad. Most actors in the Golden Age of Hollywood overacted, sure, but Marilyn’s brash is no more over the top than costar Joseph Cotton. Her good girl gone criminal Rose is a departure from all those funny singing and dancing sweetie pies, making Niagara one of Monroe’s finer films.  

NiagaraShe’s not meant to be the breakout star of this picture; Monroe’s screen time is actually less than her counterparts, but you can’t take your eyes away from her whenever she’s onscreen. Viewing today, part of that is certainly the legendary hype we’ve built up for Miss Marilyn-I even made my husband watch a moment just to see her in action! Iconic notions aside, Monroe keeps the heat and the suspense going here. After smaller roles in All About Eve and Monkey Business, Niagara brought Monroe to new career heights and cemented her sexy status. Although I have to say that an authorized Playboy appearance and romance with Joe DiMaggio certainly helped.
Now I consider myself an old school film buff, but I’m not much of a Joseph Cotton fan. I’ve seen enough of his pictures, but his oft pairing with another one of my non-favorites Jennifer Jones in Duel in the Sun and Love Letters dampens Cotton for me. Again, he comes from the school of overacting, and his angry and harsh Loomis would be too annoying and obvious if cast today. For Niagara, however, his heavy brooding works. Cotton is older, less pretty than his onscreen wife Monroe, and their opposite styles establish the mystery plot early. It’s strange that we like Marilyn Monroe’s bad girl here because she’s so dynamite, but Cotton is to whom we relate-the everyman just trying to get back on his feet until extreme circumstances force him over the edge.

We observe the Loomises along with Ray and Polly, but unfortunately, Niagara’s secondary couple is a dime a dozen. Max Showalter (The Loretta Young Show) and Jean Peters (Viva Zapata!) have little development on their own. Their delayed honeymoon and intermingling with George and Rose serve for the audience and the plot, but little else. Though both had modestly successful careers, neither can challenge Monroe. But I guess that’s nothing to be ashamed of, is it? Imagine how different Niagara would have been if Anne Baxter had played Polly as originally intended!

One thing in Niagara that does rival our penne ultimate screen goddess is the Falls themselves. I actually visited Niagara Falls for the first time late last year, so it was fascinating to see a constantly changing natural wonder captured on 55-year-old film. Certainly, some blue screen cheats were used, but many noir sequences from director Henry Hathaway (The Shepherd of the Hills, True Grit) are filmed on and about the Falls. In addition to the suspense at hand, I enjoyed the views of Niagara Falls and comparing how they looked then and now. I imagine that 60 years ago you could film on the Canadian side with little interference from tourism. Some of the buildings looked the same, and there weren’t modern riverfront casinos interfering with filming and locales back then. Other scenes featuring Niagara Falls look very different due to the natural rock and water changes that have since occurred. For conservationists that disagree with how the Canadian side of the Falls has been overly developed into an entertainment mecca, Niagara is a bittersweet statement of how these mighty waters once were.

Up against all these onscreen sights and drama, the story by frequent collaborators and Oscar winners Charles Brackett (Sunset Boulevard), Walter Reisch (Gaslight), and Richard Breen (A Foreign Affair) holds well for today’s audience. We may call them ‘thrillers’ instead of ‘film noir’ now, but who doesn’t like some good old fashioned suspense? Maybe to many viewers today, Niagara’s secrets are a bit obvious, but the loveless marriage and murderous plot aren’t the point of the picture. In the highly stylized noirs of old, the getting there is what matters. Yes, we most likely know how things will turn out, but how many twists will Niagara take before it gets there?

As much as I love the lavish Technicolor and red is red lipstick on Marilyn, it is a bit surprising that Niagara is a color feature when most film noir stylings were black and white. Indeed, there’s something spooky and suspenseful about a dark and silver old picture with ambiguous women and murderous waters that would serve the genre. That being said, once you see Niagara, you know why Fox sprang for the color. The natural colors of the Falls and the fashions of Monroe need to be in true blue and hot pink. Thankfully, the onscreen suspense tricks are all there, too. The skillful lighting, foreboding music, and sense of danger before the very dangerous Falls all click for Niagara.

Young fans interested in classic mysteries will enjoy Niagara, and despite having been too steamy for the fifties, the film is safe for family night. Unlike some fellow deserving early Hollywood pictures, Niagara is available on DVD. A new individual set is available, in addition to several Marilyn Monroe collections. Monroe fans and enthusiasts will no doubt upgrade, as I find I have to do with all my classics on VHS. As of yet, it looks likes we’ll have to wait a little longer for the marriage between Marilyn and blu ray. Until then, Niagara is sure to keep young and old on the edge of their seats.


Kristin Battestella said...

And those collectors of all things Marilyn Monroe- you know who you are, especially my sister Jaime! ;0)

Kristin Battestella said...

I also just noticed that this movie marks my 100th movie review at I Think Therefore I Review! Great nod to my love of classics, don't you think?