Niagara – Henry Hathaway – 1953

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Niagra is a TechniColor Noir that tells the story of two couples who have a chance encounter at a Niagara Falls motel. Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotten are Rose and George Loomis—he, an older neurotic veteran, and she, a young nymphomaniac. Jean Peters and Max Showalter are Polly and Ray Cutler enjoying their second honeymoon. The two couples cross paths a few times, and then Rose (Monroe) conspires with her handsome young beau to have George killed, only things don’t work out so well for them. In the latter part of the movie , George seeks redemption with the help of the only empathic character in the film—Polly Cutler. Think Twin Peaks meetsVertigo—amazing photography, a great soundtrack, and some genuinely disturbing scenes. Overall, while a fascinating addition to Hathaways oeuvre, it remains inferior to his earlier masterpiece Kiss of Death.

Ah, the TechniColor Film Noir…a freak of nature that saw a brief heyday in the early 50s—well after the broad popularity of Noir in the 40s, but before the genre morphed into the more Action-oriented crime film of the mid-to-late 50s. The TechniColor Noirs were usually big sellers. Back in 1945 Leave Her to Heaven had grossed over $5m and according to IMDB Niagara was one of the top grossing films of 1953. It even got a decent write-up in the New York Times, a rarity for Noir, although the review has an ignorant tone that destroys most of its already minimal credibility.

Obviously ignoring the idea that there are Seven Wonders of the World, Twentieth Century-Fox has discovered two more and enhanced them with Technicolor in Niagara …For 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…Perhaps Miss Monroe is not the perfect actress at this point. But neither the director nor the gentlemen who handled the cameras appeared to be concerned with this. They have caught every possible curve both in the intimacy of the boudoir and in equally revealing tight dresses. And they have illustrated pretty concretely that she can be seductive – even when she walks. As has been noted, Niagara may not be the place to visit under these circumstances but the falls and Miss Monroe are something to see.

The fact is that Noir had always drawn audiences when it was properly advertised; the problem was that studios would get antsy about the controversial material, rename the movies, hold them a few years before releasing them, advertise them in strange ways, and ultimately just shoot themselves in the foot. When a Noir was promoted as an A-picture with a big budget and big names, it always brought in the crowds, and Niagara was one of the style’s most popular graduates into the ‘big leagues’.

It’s not hard to see why. The film has several things going for it right off the bat. Henry Hathaway is at home with this material; between his work on Westerns, War Movies, and Films Noir he was the perfect man to attack all the different sides of this story. On the one hand the movie is a travelogue. Ray and Polly Cutler literally going through the various Niagara Falls attractions. We watch them tour the back of the Falls and take a boat ride to the edge of the Safe Zone; the audience also gets copious and gratuitous shots of the Falls and the surrounding countryside.

The other side of the film is a nasty little Noir, with Monroe playing a extremely sexual version of the Femme Fatale. Joseph Cotten plays the most over-the-top version of the crazy Noir Vet this side of Crossfire, and it has a murder plot that results in Monroe’s only on-screen death ever. It was like two different films crashing into each other, and the Falls is repeatedly used as a symbol of this sort of intense clash at the border between dualities: Canada/America, Light/Shadow, Sane/Crazy, Love/Lust, and Life/Death. Hathaway really pulls off this bizarre sense of being on the edge of something both terrifying and beautiful—the audience being pulled between conflicted emotional states and thrashed around like a barrell in a river until the thrilling finale that has one of the only authentic happy endings in all of Noir.

Hathaway wasn’t alone in his stellar craftsmanship. His frequent collaborator, Joseph MacDonald, did the cinematography, and it’s simply outstanding. His use of light is particularly brilliant, and it outshines even the aforementioned Leave Her to Heaven, which was shot well by Leon Shamroy, but didn’t exploit all the effects that a color Noir afforded.

The lighting is so exaggerated here that this could easily be a panel of Sin City.

"A neon nebula, from under the sun." - Blondie

Much to do is made about the camera’s leering eye in this film, and while it certainly does take its time in establishing Marilyn Monroe’s role as the Femme Fatale, I think that if it hadn’t been Marilyn Monroe and it hadn’t been her breakout role, it would not seem nearly so obvious. Hathaway and MacDonald never imbue her with more erotic mystery than your average Femme Fatale, albeit they do it in glorious TechniColor. When you see Ms. Monroe in that fiery pink dress or her red coat, these colors are powerful sexual signifiers and they go a long way towards establishing the film’s pin-up pedigree. I thought the most beautiful example of using color as an erotic marker was Marilyn’s cherry red lipstick. The way it pops off the screen in her first few shots of the film are an effect you simply can’t render in black and white, and it makes her seem even more like a mystical succubus. The funny thing about all this hubbub surrounding M.M. is that Jean Peters definitely plays the film’s heroine. The whole movie has Polly standing in Rose’s shadow—just like the scene where Polly’s husband Ray is trying to take a photo of her in her bathing suit, telling her to thrust out her chest and be proud of her beauty. His amatuer photography session is interrupted just before taking the picture when Monroe walks up and literally steals Jean Peters’s spotlight.

In the shadow of the Blonde Bombshell

Sadly this symbollically echoes the production of the film as well. Apparently Anne Baxter was originally to play the role of Polly Cutler, and when she dropped out they (meaning largely Charlie Brackett) reworked the script to focus more on the Monroe character. In the film, Jean Peters is superior to M.M. in every way: emotionally, intellectually, even physically. Part of the value of the whole bathing suit scene is to show that Ms. Peters can stand up to Marilyn in any department, and that Ray Cutler’s eyes have no reason to wander from to the home front—though its hilariously self reflexive that they can’t help undercut that fact with Rose’s theft of this moment. She comes up all doe-eyes and pout, trying to be the damsel-in-distress for Ray Cutler to save, but it’s Polly that actually takes some interest in her tragic news, seeming already to know that something is amiss.

If you look at the action of the film and distinguish between the character’s behavior styles (Active v. Passive), a disturbing subtext starts to emerge. Both of the husbands are very Passive characters. George is the more obvious case, literally neurotic and unable to leave his room without having a panic attack. Ray is more active in the sense of taking pictures and going fishing, but he never acts in the Existential sense. There’s never a moment where his character makes a definite Choice with a capital “C.” Even his rejection of involvement with the murder mystery is, at its heart, a decision purely of convenience. The portrayal of the male characters is, in this way, subversive. No two men could possibly be less sexually desireable than the two husbands presented here, though if you start looking at the female characters that subtext turns sour.

Like all Femme Fatales, Monroe’s character is Existentially Authentic; she is stuck in an abusive (yes, abusive) relationship and makes the fateful decision to do something about it. Outside of conventional morality she has at least made a Choice to establish “who she is” in this world. The mise-en-scene reflects her Active nature in a number of ways. The color schemes of her outfits (pink, red) and their styles (sophisticated and complex) suggest she is a mobile woman with options–someone who picks clothes that will get her what she wants. Of course, Rose is punished for trying to get what she wants, which is standard for Film Noir. It’s not the fact of her downfall that erects the tower of misogyny that is the film’s subtext. The way that the Fatales go out in Noirs typically increases their plight’s emotional impact, by leaving them untainted by the domesticity that success in their ambitions would inevitably bring, and giving them a ghostly presence in every frame of every other Film Noir you ever see. This film is no exception, and part of the reason that people only remember Monroe even though Jean Peters is the movie’s heroine is that its only Monroe’s character that ever really does anything of her own volition.

Contrast Rose with Polly Cutler who wears slacks, simple blouses, and colors that revolve around whites, blues, and greens. She’s a Passive figure, someone who waits for a situation to develop and then decides how to REact. At first she just isn’t even going to tell anyone about Rose’s husband still being alive, and the film never explains why she would remain silent. Its simply her way; we see it over and over in the movie.

In many ways Polly parallels George Loomis, who’s locked himself away in his room to protect himself from his terror of the outside world. Polly locks herself into a dull marriage with someone she seems to have little in common with to escape her own neuroses, which are never explained in the text.So the disturbing thing about all of this is not that they paint Monroe’s character as evil, which as a murderess she is. Its the mysterious perfection that bestow upon Jean Peters that’s so problematic because aside from her ability to empathize she actually does nothing to reach that moral high ground.

Eddie Muller (the ‘Czar of Noir’, a historian and critic) has made the great point that the portrayal of women in Noir did not revolve around male insecurity in the workplace, as is often espoused, but that it revolved around class issues. Good Girls work; bad girls want something for nothing. Female characters that work are never portrayed as anything but moral. In this movie neither of the women work; they’re both tainted by their direct and permanent reliance on men. In the end Polly fails at telling the police George is still alive, she refuses to help him (despite her obvious suspicions that his wife was evil and him simply misunderstood), and then gets herself BOTH kidnapped and saved by the same guy.

What makes her good then? Well, she’s sweet, don’t ya know? The only thing that really subverts this sad little sub-text is the lighting. The style of Noir is inherently subversive—it always implies that the picture you’re seeing is only one piece of a puzzle that can never be understood. In shots like the one featured below, we see the embodiment of 50s values. A happy couple vacationing off of one of the most beautiful natural landmarks in America, but even deep in the perfect Amerikan Phantasy, the shadow world of Film Noir covers the walls in prison bars and slowly eats the universe from the corners in.

Even here, in the All-American living room, the Noir underworld traps them.

Niagara is a beautiful movie, and it’s disturbingly anti-woman subtext is regrettable, but it doesn’t impact the artistry of the film. Morality and Aesthetics are distintctly separate categories of value assessment, and Niagara uses great craftsmanship to explicate its hilariously simplistic world view.

2 Responses to "Niagara – Henry Hathaway – 1953"
  1. andrew says:

    Oddly, I saw Niagara at a theater in New York in the seventies, and it instantly became one of my favorite films. These old noirs deserve a big screen. It’s not the same when it plays on television. It’s still interesting, but the grandeur of the falls and the scenery is lost.
    I do agree with your article on the fact tha Jean Peeters is prettier, more intelligent and a much better actress than Monroe (who’s sexy and all that but Jean caught my attention on a grander scale).
    Peters’ acting qualities are comparable to those of actress Gena Rowlands -they even have similar voice tones. Jean is gorgeous, though. No wonder Howard Hughes, richest man in the world back then, fell head over heels for her. She and Monroe were friends in real life. She also became chummy with Cotten and Cassey Adams (who plays her husband). I read Jean was truly a nice person and had lots of close freinds (Jeanne Crain, for one)
    Niagara is a very entertaining thriller. One of the few noirs I’ve seen in color. I watch it every time I catch it on TV. Why not? I get to see the falls, Marilyn and Jean. And that’s a great treat!

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