This site, Cinema Shame, is usually about highlighting films one has never seen before. For this blogathon, I’m doing something a little different; I’m reviewing a movie which I have seen, which I’m hoping I can get other people to see, because I think it’s a shame if they miss out on it. In keeping with this Blogathon’s subject matter, I’m looking at a movie set in Canada. Specifically, the 1953 suspense thriller Niagara.
Niagara is the story of a young newlywed couple, Polly and Ray Cutler (Jean Peters, Max Showalter) who arrive at Niagara Falls for a combination honeymoon/business trip. Their neighbours include George Loomis (Joseph Cotten) and his much younger wife Rose (Marilyn Monroe). The Cutler’s become friends with Rose, not knowing that she has a plan to murder her husband with the help of a lover. When George disappears, everyone feels sympathy for Rose. However, Polly becomes entangled in the plot when she runs into George after his disappearance, and can’t convince anyone else she saw him. The movie’s twists and turns lead to a desperate boat chase in the river above the Falls.
Niagara was directed by Henry Hathaway, a Hollywood veteran of both westerns and film noirs. His earlier films include Kiss of Death (1947) and The House on 92nd Street (1945). Niagara is, by all accounts, a noir, despite its being in Technicolor. The Falls are very much a feature of the film, and are used very well. The cabins in which both couples are staying were built specifically for the film, and they command an amazing view of the Falls. They were later removed after filming. Getting a little closer, The Walk Behind The Falls plays a very important part of the film, as it’s where Rose and her lover plan for George to die in an accident. Rainbow Tower is also a key setting for the film, as it’s where Rose is finally confronted by George after his supposed death.
Speaking of Rose, a word needs to be said about how important Niagara was to Marilyn Monroe, and she to it. This movie marks the first time Marilyn ever got top billing, and it’s a rare dramatic role for her. 1953 was a very good year for Marilyn’s movies, as Niagara would be followed by Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How To Marry A Millionaire. Marilyn, though, probably saw little of the success. Even though she was the film’s lead actress, Marilyn was still a stock player for 20th Century Fox, meaning she was paid a weekly salary (she wouldn’t become a contract star for another 3 years). The producers behind Niagara, though, wanted the movie to highlight Marilyn, both as a character and an actress.
Marilyn’s costuming in Niagara was all very form fitting, and it was often filmed to highlight Marilyn’s features. The film holds the record for the longest walk recorded on film (116 feet of film), and it consists entirely of Marilyn walking away from the camera. It’s also been said that the director cut down Marilyn’s heels for the walk so she would sway more than usual. Whether true or not, Marilyn is more than just a pretty woman in Niagara. As Rose Loomis, she plays her part very well, going from seductive femme fatale to fearful victim through the story. The whole cast play their parts very well, and the whole story is well-told, up to a point.
If there’s a problem with Niagara, it’s with the timing of the story. With the focus on Marilyn Monroe, one of the biggest moments in the film is going to be the confrontation between her and Joseph Cotten after he escapes the death she planned for him. The buildup to the meeting is very well-done, as we see Rose start to panic and seek a way out of Canada as fast as possible. George finds her and, after a bit of a chase, corners her under the bells in the Rainbow Tower. It’s a dynamite scene, filmed beautifully in color with all the trappings of noir. It would serve as a great finale to any film. Unfortunately, though, there’s about 15-20 minutes left. By this time, there’s a manhunt on for George, and he somehow manages to find his way to the same area where the Cutlers are going for the boat ride. This leads to George taking Polly hostage on a boat, and they end up drifting towards the Falls. George manages to get Polly to safety, but he ends up going over the Falls. The idea that these two somehow manage to end up at the same location for this to happen is stretching credibility just a bit, and feels just a bit pointless. Still, I think the film is definitely worth a watch. Not everyone thought so, however.
Marilyn’s costuming, as mentioned before, was very form-fitting, and the movie played them up to their advantage. Religious groups, however, felt the movie was indecent, and banned it upon release. Another complaint came from the Ontario MPP for Niagara, William Limburg Houck. He took a very dim view of the movie when it was announced, afraid that a story full of sexuality and murder would harm Niagara’s reputation and position as a tourist destination. His was a dissenting opinion, though; most everyone else in the Ontario government backed the film wholeheartedly, and to this day, it’s considered an important part of Niagara’s tourist history. You can even stay in Marilyn Monroe’s hotel room if you want (room 801 of the Niagara Falls Crowne Plaza, once the General Brock hotel). The movie, all in all, did justice to both the natural beauty of Niagara Falls, and of its lead actress, Marilyn Monroe.