Niagara/ 1953/ 20th Century Fox/ 90 min
Screen legend and pop-culture icon Marilyn Monroe is known for many things (her amazing looks, bright talent and troubled personal life) but noir does not spring immediately to mind. And yet in “Niagara,” Monroe brilliantly tackles the role of devious vamp.
Directed by Henry Hathaway, this film is a bit hard to classify – the flashy Technicolor screams neo-noir while its 1953 release date puts it firmly in the classic noir camp. I suppose purists would argue that date trumps color and that neo noir doesn’t start until the 1970s, but I am nothing if not impure. Either way you want to label it, the characters, mood and color are irresistible, just like Monroe herself. We even get to see her sing.
In “Niagara,” we meet a wholesome good girl with a killer tan who’s on a “delayed” honeymoon (Jean Peters, as Polly Cutler) and a restless bad girl (Monroe as bored wife Rose Loomis), both staying at a Niagara Falls resort.
Polly and her husband Ray Cutler (Max Showalter, billed in this movie as Casey Adams) are the perky foils to Rose and her husband George Loomis (Joseph Cotten). George is fond of grousing about Rose’s slinky sartorial choices, especially the famous red dress with a bikini-esque bustline). Perhaps crabbing about Rose’s hemline gets his mind off darker problems. George spent some time in a psychiatric ward after the war.
Rose hopes that by returning to the site of their honeymoon, George can pop a few pills and chill. But that doesn’t seem to be working and everyone knows that a voluptuous blonde is easily distracted. ;) Enter Rose’s delicious young lover and soon-to-be accomplice (Richard Allan) as she makes her bid for freedom by getting rid of cranky George.
It seems divorce would not be enough to permanently dissolve their union. If Rose walks, George will run after her. But the good news for Rose is: accidents happen, especially at Niagara Falls …
Essentially, “Niagara” warns The American Man: It might be fun to ogle a centerfold hottie, but she’ll burn you if you get too close. Sex equals sin, after all, in a puritanical worldview. Then there’s the tedious symbolism of the falls for passion’s highs and lows. Even the trailer hammers home the warning: Monroe is a “tantalizing temptress who lures men on to their eternal destruction.”
All right, already, we get it!
Still, “Niagara” is a fascinating product of its time. It was a box-office hit and fared reasonably well with critics. As the New York Times put it: “The producers are making full use of both the grandeur of the Falls and its adjacent areas as well as the grandeur that is Marilyn Monroe.”
Monroe, though not at the height of her dramatic power, sparkles as the femme fatale, a role that is a bit more complicated than arm candy or ditzy ingénue; Cotten is great, as always, as the brooding, war-torn vet. Monroe’s wardrobe is terrific, even her shiny yellow raincoat for visiting the falls, and it’s impossible to take your eyes off of her. (According to imdb.com’s trivia section, because Monroe was still under contract to 20th Century Fox as a stock actor at a fixed salary, she made less money than her make-up man Allan Snyder.)
“Niagara” is a solid showing from Hathaway whose noir résumé also includes “The House on 92nd Street,” “The Dark Corner,” “Kiss of Death,” “Call Northside 777,” “13 Rue Madeleine” and “Seven Thieves.” What stands out in “Niagara” are the taut pacing, outstanding photography, and exciting, suspenseful storytelling. The writing from Charles Brackett (who penned “The Lost Weekend” and “Sunset Boulevard,” among many others), along with Walter Reisch and Richard L. Breen, is crisp and clever.
On the downside, the story is disjointed and clumsy – because Rose’s conquest is such a tiny part of it, the love-triangle dynamics lack tension. Apparently the script was rehashed after Anne Baxter dropped the Polly Cutler part. But there’s enough action (a harrowing helicopter rescue, for instance) to keep things interesting.
Jean Peters, as stunning, smart, kind and capable Polly, gets third billing and a big chunk of screen time. That’s fine, but that also means we see a lot of her smug, dullard husband – he is not interesting to watch – and it’s rather a stretch that the two would be happily married. In real life, Peters was wed to Hollywood Lothario Howard Hughes.
That’s a small gripe, however. “Niagara” is required viewing for Monroe fans, vintage-apparel lovers and aspiring femmes fatales.