Revisiting Niagara

Niagara (1953)
Directed by Henry Hathaway
20th Century Fox, 88 minutes, Not-rated (Bad acting warning)

You have to do it. You'll hate yourself afterward, but you still have to do it. Everyone does. What, you ask? See the 1953 Marilyn Monroe vehicle Niagara right after you get back from visiting Niagara Falls. It was box office boffo back in '53, but it sure looks like buffoonery in the present.

The set up is simple enough. A wholesome Midwestern couple, Ray and Polly Cutler, come to Niagara Falls for a delayed honeymoon. It's the '50s and Ray (Max Showalter) was too busy with his job with Quaker Oats to get away with the missus (Jean Peters) after the wedding, but that's all to the good as he's such a clever lad that he's won a slogan contest and some dosh to finance the trip. The destination has as much to do with Ray's hope of seeing Mr. Kettering, a company big shot over on the U.S. side, than of taking in the view.

The Cutlers arrive at the rustic cabins overlooking the falls, but the couple in their unit hasn't yet checked out. Rose Loomis (Marilyn Monroe) pleads that her husband is ill and the Cutlers valiantly agree to take another cabin. George Loomis (Joseph Cotten) is indeed sick–of both life and his wife's philandering. He's a Korean vet suffering from PTSD and while the cat was away at war, the mouse sure did play. Rose is younger, more vivacious, and more than a little on the slutty side. It might be more accurate to say that she was the cat, one playing with George and trying to lure him into a trap wherein Patrick, her boyfriend du jour, would kill him and toss his body over the falls. When the Rainbow Tower Carillon chimed the song "Kisses," Rose would know the plan had succeeded. In the meantime she spends her time squeezing into tight dresses and driving both George and the local teenagers crazy. (Why the "kids," as Rose calls them, hold their record hops at a local motor court is never explained.) Rose is your basic femme fatale, but with a wiggle and a bump.

You don't need me to tell you that there's no film if the murder scheme goes exactly as planned. Queue some scenes along the falls, in the tower, and on the river. My first thought was of how different this film would have been had Alfred Hitchcock directed it. Instead it was Henry Hathaway, whose métier was Westerns. Niagara thus has the disjointed feel of a B-Western in which the plot hardly matters as the audience is just waiting for the shoot-out. Replace the corral with Niagara's churning foam and this film is essentially a watery Western.

Hathaway tried to add noir elements in scenes inside the Rainbow Carillon and by making Joseph Cotten sullen and dark, but he's just not up to the task. I'm sure Cotten must have thought dozens of times, "Toto, I've a feeling this isn't an Orson Welles film anymore." Cotten's talents were wasted in this film, as were those of Jean Peters who was known for being a film siren in her own right, though in this film she's done up more like Ginger on Gilligan's Island. Peters could actually act, though, which is far more than can be said for Monroe. In this film, Monroe played to every stereotype you've ever associated with her. Her attempts to be dramatic were risible and the best that can be said is that she's as good as Showalter, who plays a gee-whiz kid who's around 30 going on 12. The Ketterings (Don Wilson and Lurene Tuttle) are also more over the top than, well, a barrel over Niagara.

Niagara's real standout is, of course, the falls. They looked a bit differently in 1953. They were higher as there was less rock debris at the base, you could get much closer to them, and they appeared even more powerful as there wasn't much surrounding them. The US/Canada border was pretty much an open one and there was very little development on either side. Nor did you have to wait in a long line to pay $20 to park your car; there was plenty of on-street parking. The film's final dramatic scenes above the falls play out a little bit like Lillian Gish leaping onto ice floes in Way Down East, but if you've been to Niagara you can generate your own adrenaline during the film's climax.

As movies go, Niagara is a small cask of hogwash tumbling over the precipice. Somehow it seemed so much better when I saw it on TV as a child, but maybe that's because Monroe and the 1950s seemed more plausible back then. Objectively, this is a really dumb film. But if you go to Niagara Falls, you'll want to watch it. Go ahead. It's okay. The guilt passes quickly. Then you can laugh about it.

Rob Weir

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