by Robert Weston
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Released in 1953, Niagara is one of a handful of noir movies that were exclusively intended as a star vehicle for a single personality—oddly enough in this case, Marilyn Monroe. The majority of A-list noirs of the classic period were packed with characters, especially in cases of urban detective stories. A jungle of characters and subplots is one of the genre’s strengths, resulting in consistently complex plot lines unheard of in other genre films. At the same time, the intricacies of film noir are sometimes an Achilles heel, serving only to confuse even the most attentive audience (John Huston’s The Big Sleep is notorious for its various ‘inexplicables,’ due more to editing-under-pressure than anything else). That being said, Niagara is the exception to the rule; though produced by 20th Century Fox, it appears that the studio didn’t care much for having a Byzantine story or a large cast—the film is strictly meant to be an eye-popping, figure-hugging, titillating introduction to a gal named Marilyn Monroe.
As the film opens, Ray and Polly Cutler (Max Showalter and Jean Peters) are headed for a belated honeymoon in Niagara Falls. Ray is a saccharine-sweet husband and a wide-eyed upstart in the breakfast cereal business (think Ward Cleaver as a naïve young man). When the couple arrives at the resort, they find that another couple, George and Rose Loomis, is occupying their cabin. George (Joseph Cotton, who appeared in several noir movies including Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt and Welles’ Touch of Evil) and Rose (Marilyn Monroe) appear to be a dismal mismatch. Rose is a voluptuous sexpot and George is a nervous wreck; he’s also a distant senior to his wayward wife.
When the Loomis couple doesn’t immediately check out, Ray and Polly accept the cabin next door, giving up a view of the falls. Rose apologizes, explaining that her husband was recently released from a war-veterans hospital and he is still in the midst of a slow recovery from shell shock.
On their first day in town, Ray and Polly go sightseeing together, where Polly spots Rose kissing another man. It’s hardly the first clue that something is amiss in the Loomis marriage, and it’s soon revealed that Rose and her young lover are planning to murder George and collect on his life insurance policy. George, however, has other plans…
Where some examples of noir are progressive—arguably feminist—Niagara falls far short of the mark. The film plays heavily to the masculine paranoia that divided the sexes in post-war America. During the War, with most of America’s young men away in Europe, U.S. employers dug into the home front’s female workforce. Businesses offered women jobs that previously were reserved only for those with oak-tree arms and testosterone by the bucketful. Besides factory work and physical labour, women also began to hold positions of influence in corporate and managerial circles. Following the war, the enlarged female workforce was understandably reluctant to give up their new positions to returning soldiers—especially to men who were jangled by the psychological effects of war.
On the big screen, the film noir femme fatale expressed everything men feared from this new, upwardly mobile woman. It comes as no surprise that the genre chose curvy, hyper-feminine women to portray a bevy of sinful sirens—it was pure femininity being demonized up there on the screen, and in the nineteen-fifties who was more feminine that Marilyn Monroe?
Prior to Niagara, Monroe had only been offered small roles as background window-dressing in films like The Asphalt Jungle (1950), All About Eve (1950) and Monkey Business (1952). Niagara—a classically crafted, if somewhat simplistic, noir—was her first real starring role. It’s clear that the studio intended the film to be a crucial star-maker for Monroe. The preview and the poster for the film were emblazoned with superlative slogans like: “A raging torrent of emotion that even nature can’t control!” or “When a man took her loveliness in his arms, he took his life in his hands!” or how about “Niagara and Marilyn Monroe: The two most electrifying sights in the world!” Hollywood was creating the ‘figure’ that would become its most enduring personality. Unfortunately, based on the film’s publicity, it appears that the audience should be more worried about the real-life Monroe rather than the fictional Rose Loomis. Of course, a statement like that assumes ‘Marilyn Monroe’ was a real person rather than a beguiling Hollywood invention.
Niagara is a good movie for noir fans who crave something a little different. Be warned, the film was shot in glorious Technicolor, not black and white, but still boasts an ample share of shadows and style. Keep in mind that although he lacks the posthumous reputation enjoyed by some of his contemporaries, Henry Hathaway, the film’s director, made some strong, naturalistic contributions to film noir with the likes of Kiss of Death (1947) and Call Northside 777 (1948). Undoubtedly, the best reason to see Niagara is just as trailer promised: for the scenery. There’s some terrific location work that showcases the breathtaking aspects of the Falls before the city evolved into a tawdry Canadian answer to Atlantic City; and of course, there’s a gal named Marilyn Monroe, burgeoning at her humble beginnings.
Robert Weston is a freelance writer living in Toronto.
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