March 14, 2013
Niagara – US, 1953
In the old days, movies provided subtle clues about their female characters through vices. If a woman drank, it was a sign that she was headed down the wrong path. If a woman listened to jazz, it was a sign that she had wild tendencies that could get her into trouble. In Henry Hathaway’s Niagara, it is the red lipstick on Rose Loomis that hints that there is something sinister behind her sweet smile and pleasant demeanor. What is peculiar about the red lipstick is that she has it on so early in the morning – before she’s even dressed and long before she has any reason to be heading out for the day. And any notion that she is trying to look pleasing for her husband is dashed with her dismissive behavior towards him after he returns from an early morning excursion to Niagara Falls. Her reaction reveals disdain, not affection.
Rose Loomis is played by the legendary Marilyn Monroe, who made a career out of playing sweet, fun-loving, ditzy types, many of whom has a healthy interest in acquiring wealth. In this film, she plays a character with only two of these characteristics. Loomis is a woman who lights up at the sound of a party outside and sways to the rhythm of contemporary tunes. She also seems to have married for money, and then – if her husband is to be believed – caused the emotional and financial downfall of the man she married. Therefore, she should not be a likeable character, yet one of the film’s minor flaws is that at precisely the wrong moment, it attempts to portray her as the victim of a mad man from one of those often-mocked horror films – the ones in which a character turns a corner only to see her pursuer standing there waiting. Moments like these are intended to send chills down people’s spin. Here, I couldn’t help pondering just how long he had been standing there.
Niagara is about two married couples, the first one being Rose and her husband George (Joseph Cotton). The second is Ray and Polly Cutter (Casey Adams and Jean Peters), an American couple on a much-delayed honeymoon to Niagara Falls. Ray is an employee of the Shredded Wheat company, and I rather enjoyed the humorous references to the breakfast cereal. At one point, there is mention of turkey stuffed with shredded wheat. Don’t laugh. It earned Ray a free trip. As for Polly, it is she who becomes suspicious of Rose.
The film has a fair number of twists, and most of them work. The few that don’t fail because they are not followed though on. It is as if the screenwriters wanted to make a truly dark film about murder and madness, but got cold feet at the last minute. Perhaps this is why the film seems unwilling to have Monroe’s character remain a villain throughout and why Ray suddenly starts screaming about Polly’s having dreamt up someone returning from the dead. However, it is in the character of George that we can see the clearest evidence of the filmmaker’s dilemma. George is a veteran, a farmer who lost everything, and a man suffering from what may be post-traumatic stress. In other words, he is a character that practically begs for the audience’s sympathy, and for a while, the audience is on his side. In fact, I found myself wishing that Rose would turn a new leaf and realize just how much he means to her. It came as a bit of shock then to see this sympathetic character become the equivalent of a standard horror film villain – able to be anywhere at anytime and then to vanish just as mysteriously.
The film is filled with some wonderful moments, many of them involving Polly. In every way, she is Rose’s opposite. She’s the kind of woman who goes to a dance and only dances with one person, and she has a sense of modesty that Rose lacks. In one wonderful scene, Ray sees Polly sunbathing and wants desperately to record the moment for posterity. Peter’s reaction is priceless, for it clearly distinguished her from Rose. Rose gets great joy from her ability to turn heads, and I have no doubt that were someone to take out a camera, she’d be posing even before she was asked if she’d mind having her picture taken.
Niagara contains strong performances, particularly by Monroe and Peters. The two male leads, Joseph Cotton and Casey Adams, give adequate performances, ones that would probably work even better if the script were a bit more consistent with their characters. The film’s climax is exciting, yet predictable, owing to the fact that it was foreshadowed a bit too obviously earlier in the film. However, predictability aside, the film still has the power to rope viewers in. And while Niagara had the potential to be something that Hitchcock would have envied, it will have to settle for being a very good film that unfortunately could have been so much more. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. (on DVD)
3 and a half stars