Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: NIAGARA (1953)

Although she is better remembered for comedy roles like Sugar Kane in Some Like It Hot (1959), Marilyn Monroe got her first big break in a noir picture, The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Niagara, a color noir thriller from director Henry Hathaway, was released in 1953, the same year as both Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire, but the Marilyn we meet in Niagara is quite a different gal from Lorelei Lee. Though not an essential example of the noir style, Niagara is an exciting film that pulses with sexual energy, and it puts Marilyn to good use in the role of a murderously unfaithful femme fatale.

Our story takes place in and around Niagara Falls, where a young married couple, Ray (Max Showalter) and Polly (Jean Peters), are finally enjoying a long postponed honeymoon, thanks to Ray's winning idea for the shredded wheat company where he works. At the cabins they meet another couple, Rose (Monroe) and George (Joseph Cotten), whose marriage appears far less happy. In fact, Polly soon discovers that Rose has another man in her life, while George appears to be coming unglued at the seams. When George turns up missing, everyone assumes it was suicide, but Polly, always in the wrong place at the wrong time, finds herself drawn into the deeper and far deadlier truth.

All of the major parts are well played, with Joseph Cotten edgy and worn as the understandably troubled George, and Max Showalter (credited as Casey Adams) blissfully and benignly stupid as Ray. The real action of the film belongs to Polly and Rose, however, with Peters and Monroe making perfect foils to one another. As Rose, Monroe comes across as cheap and scheming but certainly not dumb, even though she uses other people's assumptions about her to her own advantage. Both Rose and Polly are far more intelligent than any of the men around them, and the film's focus on its women makes Niagara an interesting noir choice for female viewers. Rose is very much a classic femme fatale, but Polly is more complex; Monroe might be the flashier figure, but Polly is the film's real protagonist, and Peters plays her beautifully. We only wonder why she is married to a dolt like Ray, who never listens to his wife and patronizes her with excruciating self-assurance as Polly tries to explain her suspicions about George and Rose.

The falls themselves function as another major character in Niagara. Hathaway and cinematographer Joseph MacDonald present the rushing water as the ultimate metaphor for unbridled passion, with almost all of the key scenes involving the falls or the river.  The characters spend a lot of the movie in bright rain slickers, climbing slippery catwalks, cruising on The Maid of the Mist, and wandering through the sights. It would be a great tourism advertisement if it weren't for all the homicide.

Technicolor noir is condemned as antithetical to the style by some purists, but Niagara successfully puts its palette to work in the service of its themes, and Marilyn certainly looks more interesting in color. If you enjoy Niagara, you can see more of Marilyn in film noir in The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and Clash By Night (1952). For more from Jean Peters, try Pickup on South Street (1953) and A Blueprint for Murder (1953). Look for Joseph Cotten in Citizen Kane (1941), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), and The Third Man (1949).

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.

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