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True to its title, the 1953 thriller Niagara spares no effort to make Niagara Falls the star of its suspenseful, sometimes spectacular story. The movie starts and finishes with dramatic images of the falls, emphasizing their power, beauty, and potential danger. The opening scene further heightens the atmosphere by introducing one of the main characters, a troubled Korean War veteran with an unfaithful wife, wandering among the rocks near the Horseshoe Falls and contemplating his own insignificance in comparison with nature's indifferent vastness. Almost every scene takes place in the immediate vicinity of the falls - at the tourist cabins where the chief characters are staying, in the Maid of the Mist boat that carries visitors close to the thundering cascades, on the wooden staircases that provide high-angle views, within the tunnels that give access to other areas, and in the bell tower that figures importantly in the plot. Making the falls a constant presence was the deliberate strategy of the filmmakers, including director Henry Hathaway and Twentieth Century-Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck, who wanted Niagara to resemble a top-of-the-line guided tour for everyone who saw it.
To make strong impressions in this setting, the human stars have their work cut out for them. The one who succeeds best is, not surprisingly, Marilyn Monroe as the wicked wife, who riles her husband by wearing lusciously colored low-cut dresses, and tantalizes the audience by showering behind a translucent curtain and playing peek-a-boo with her curvaceous body behind towels and sheets. These hijinks aside, Monroe gives a nicely controlled performance, blending the sultry and the sinister without upstaging or eclipsing her costars. They're gifted Hollywood actors - Joseph Cotten plays the tormented husband and Jean Peters plays the honeymooning bride in a neighboring cabin - but they don't have the magnetism that made Monroe a unique screen personality.
After the moody introduction showing George Loomis prowling unhappily among the rocks at daybreak, we meet Ray and Polly Cutler arriving at the Canadian side of the falls for a belated honeymoon, subsidized by Ray's winnings in a contest sponsored by the Shredded Wheat Company, an actual firm with headquarters near the falls. They're supposed to take the cabin occupied by George and his wife Rose, but the Loomises haven't moved out because George, who recently left a mental hospital, has been out of sorts lately. Ray and Polly cheerfully take another cabin and settle in for a swell vacation. But the better they get to know the Loomises, the fishier things look. George's suspicions about Rose drive him berserk at a tourist get-together, where he smashes a record playing a song called "Kiss" because it obviously has secret meanings for his wife. Sure enough, Polly sees Rose kissing a different man on a stairway by the falls, and soon we learn that Rose and her illicit boyfriend are planning to murder George and run away together, figuring that George's well-known instability will lead people to assume he killed himself. One way they signal each other is arranging for "Kiss" to be played by the carillon in the bell tower. Their plan goes haywire, however, bringing sad consequences to everyone except Ray and Polly, who can finally have their honeymoon in peace.
Niagara Falls had never been a movie star until this production. According to a scholar who has studied the film's history, producer and co-screenwriter Charles Brackett had the idea for the project, writing a memo to Zanuck saying the falls "had hardly been touched by motion pictures" except for "an occasional bow in a newsreel or travelogue." Zanuck loved the concept, saying the movie should include a "violent, tumultuous, nerve-assaulting sequence on the rapids," which accurately (if hyperbolically) describes the climax of the finished film. It's interesting that the filmmakers recognized a dark side to Niagara that makes it an appropriate setting for a film-noir storyline. Although the area is most famous as a vacation and honeymoon destination, researchers and journalists report that more suicides take place there than anywhere else in North America, and in the past century more than five hundred bodies have been pulled from the river below the falls. Those facts are very much in keeping with the film's gloomy aspects.
Still and all, the predominant tone of Niagara is more exciting than melancholy, and Monroe and the falls are not the only eyefuls it has to offer, thanks to Hathaway's sure touch with noir visuals and Joe MacDonald's stunning Technicolor camerawork. Venetian blinds cast quintessential noir shadows across the cabin interior where George and Rose are losing their marriage and their sanity, and when George plods in after a night of sleepless wandering, a superb deep-focus shot shows him standing vertical in the midground, Monroe lying horizontal in the foreground, and a pink-checked sofa glimmering ironically in the background. Much later, an overhead shot of Monroe lying supine in the carillon tower, framed by silent bells hanging above, has a canted perspective worthy of a Salvador Dalí dreamscape. These are only a couple of the creative images that make Niagara more than a routine suspense story and travelogue; it's a first-rate specimen of Technicolor noir in the late years of the original noir cycle.
Monroe's well-modulated acting comes as a pleasant surprise, since this is the period of her career when she was under the spell of Hollywood voice coach Natasha Lytess, who insisted that she over pronounce her syllables, thereby weakening some of her other performances around this time; you can occasionally hear Lytess's bad advice in action, but Monroe usually sounds reasonably natural. Cotten projects a volatile temperament and underlying sadness that effectively balances Rose's sexy malevolence, and Peters is admirably self-effacing as Polly, executing her second-banana role gracefully even though husband Ray is played by Casey Adams, one of the era's least charismatic actors. Don Wilson, famed throughout the 1950s as the portly announcer for The Jack Benny Program on TV, is perfect as a back-slapping, bromide-spouting executive of the Shredded Wheat Company. Suspenseful, energetic, sometimes predictable, but often beautiful, Niagara is as alluring in its way as the location that inspired it.
Producer: Charles Brackett
Director: Henry Hathaway
Screenplay: Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch, Richard Breen
Cinematography: Joe MacDonald
Art Direction: Maurice Ransford, Lyle Wheeler
Film Editing: Barbara McLean
Cast: Marilyn Monroe (Rose Loomis), Joseph Cotten (George Loomis), Jean Peters (Polly Cutler), Casey Adams (Ray Cutler), Denis O'Dea (Inspector Starkey), Richard Allan (Patrick), Don Wilson (Mr. J.C. Kettering), Lurene Tuttle (Mrs. Kettering), Russell Collins (Mr. Qua), Will Wright (Boatman).
C-88m. Closed Captioning.
by David Sterritt