Niagara (1953) – A Review
Niagara Falls is the perfect spot for honeymooners looking for a romantic getaway. Witnessing one of the great wonders of the world, necking in the mists of the falls, listening to records. What a perfect place for young lovers.
That’s the vision newlyweds Ray and Polly Cutler (Max Showalter and Jean Peters) have when they arrive, but they soon meet husband and wife George and Rose Loomis (Joseph Cotten and Marilyn Monroe), whose troubles aren’t being solved by the idyllic dreamy setting.
Rose is forming a plot to murder George with the help of her lover Patrick. When her plan encounters a major hiccup leaving Patrick dead and George alive, Rose has a lot of explaining to do.
Meanwhile, Polly knows all that’s going on and is torn between revealing all to the police or trusting George that he’s merely a victim in this dastardly plot and can handle the situation himself.
Will Polly help George? Is George as much of a threat as Rose? Will Rose be able to escape the police dragnet and her angry very-much-alive husband? And will Ray ever realize this is not a typical vacation and get clued in on all the deceit and murder that’s happening? This guy is acting completely out of it!
Niagara was a huge hit for Twentieth Century Fox when it debuted. The promotion for the movie featured the pairing of what they called two great beauties of nature – Niagara Falls and Marilyn Monroe.
And the publicity milked as much as they could from it. There are countless photos of Monroe looking glamorous posing in front of the falls. I imagine the images were great for promotion with all the magazines including them alongside advertising for the film.
I always thought the poster with the image of Monroe laying atop the falls with water falling over her figure was pretty cool too. To go so far as announcing both Marilyn and Niagara Falls were being presented in glorious Technicolor was something audiences just couldn’t pass up.
And Niagara does utilize both its star and location very effectively. Director Henry Hathaway films Monroe with as much care and affection as the falls. The film makes sure to capture both their splendors in every way possible.
I had read once that Monroe was not happy with some of the ways Hathaway focused on her…’assets’ for the film. I remember reading in one shot Marilyn was to walk away from the camera and the camera stayed on her for an extremely long time being sure to capture every hip moving step she took. Apparently, Marilyn was not happy with such a long take that was only meant to only showcase her figure and posterior for male audiences to gawk at.
For those who watch Niagara solely for Monroe they won’t be disappointed, she does look great. She also gives a good performance as a classic callous femme fatale. Here, she’s not playing one of her ditzy, blondes who you just can’t help but like. Monroe’s Rose is not a nice person.
I think the iconic Hollywood sex symbol image of Monroe unfairly overshadows her actual acting in Niagara – she was really good in this and gives a performance that is one of the main draws to the film.
The falls look great too. I always think of Niagara Falls today as a gaudy, tourist spot with tacky gift shops and cheesy hotels strewn all around the place. Just a lot of nonsense that has been built up around the falls and has made the natural wonder into a low-rent attraction. Here, back in 1953, or at least in the film, the area looks like a much more classy place to visit.
Setting aside the two big attractions here, the story itself is a classic noir tale told in a very stylish way. I’d rather avoid the details of how the story plays out, but it’s basically a wife wanting her husband dead, “Oops!” something goes wrong and her plan goes sideways.
The story itself is not anything particularly special. The old tale of killing ones spouse has been the backbone of many noir tales. The main thing is how it’s executed with the characters and performances to accompany it. Many other noirs used similar stories in much more compelling ways than what happens in Niagara. So I wouldn’t place it towards the top of the list, but more in the middle range.
What’s strange about Niagara is there really isn’t a typical ‘noir hero’ in this. Rose is obviously out for blood, so you would think you would be sympathetic towards George’s plight. He is after all Rose’s intended victim and I do feel for the guy when we first meet him.
But as the story goes on and the decisions that are made by him – seemingly convoluted ones I thought – I was rooting less and less for him. So, it gets to a strange point where I’m watching Niagara and not caring if either of the two lead characters succeed in what they’re trying to accomplish or what happens to them.
The two completely righteous characters of Polly and Ray might be where you would think your allegiances will fall. However, again Polly’s predicament of knowing what has happened and her silence starts to get too far-fetched for me. I just can’t grasp the logic of it, especially considering she has only known Rose and George for like two days! She can only blame herself and her own terrible judgement for whatever happens.
And Ray…oh boy I didn’t care for him at all. Showalter gets quite irritating with his excited boyish attitude. It doesn’t seem possible for anything to ruin his vacation. For instance, his wife is visiting a morgue, the police are asking questions and all he wants to do is go fishing! His character is just so seemingly oblivious I sometimes felt he was in a different movie.
The dots in the story don’t really seem to connect as well as they should. There’s just too many leaps of convenience. By the time a boat with two characters are in the rapids dramatically heading to the edge of the falls, I was asking myself, “how did we get here?”. That’s not what I want to be asking in a noir.
I want an escalating story propelled by plausible actions, that builds to an inevitable conclusion. With Niagara I had to play some hop-scotch for that.
Despite its shortcomings Niagara is still entertaining. There are some exceptional individual scenes, particularly with Monroe and Cotten. A climactic meeting at Niagara’s bell tower especially stands out.
Typically, noirs from this period were mainly lower budget affairs filmed in black and white. So, Niagara is unique in the sense it was on the other end of that scale. It does still manage to incorporate all those moody dark shadows from window blinds that us noir fans love to see.
The locale of Niagara Falls is a nice contrast to the sinister story taking place. The movie is a great advertisement to visit Niagara Falls, probably the best film ever to feature them so prominently. I wonder if tourism spiked there after the film came out.
I imagine there’s been a lot of changes there since the film was released. As it stands, Niagara is like a postcard from that 1950’s era. Seeing those quaint little cabins overlooking the falls, I’d be ready to make reservations to stay in one of those today! I don’t think those cabins actually ever existed though.
And then there’s Marilyn in all her Technicolor grandeur. She doesn’t disappoint and gives a very commendable performance. I could see why fans would argue it’s perhaps was her best one. I don’t think Niagara is one of her best films overall, but it is worth checking out at least once.
And if you are curious to see it – here’s Marilyn’s long walk in Niagara that audiences marveled at