Niagara April 6, 2016
Niagara is a flimsy star vehicle, but any film devoted to showcasing Marilyn Monroe has got to be worth something. The first release in the year which would come to be her breakthrough (the others being How to Marry a Millionaire and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), it is little more than a stylish, strung-together, and thoroughly thin film noir backed by luscious three-strip Technicolor photography.
And yet it achieves exactly what it should, which is to be a serviceable, voluptuously filmed “thriller” in love with its scenery, not to mention the face and body of its transcendentally beautiful leading lady. For that, I can only give it credit — it knows what it is, and does everything it can, aesthetically speaking, to overcome its written limitations.
I suppose we have Henry Hathaway, director and film noir superstar (The Dark Corner, Kiss of Death), to thank; when the screenplay mostly curses Niagara with the tropes found in a classic Woman In Trouble nail-biter, Hathaway makes up for its lack of personality by drowning the screen in delectable style, seeing opportunity to ogle the breathtaking scenery of its titular setting, to fondle Monroe with the appreciation of a cheesecake cover model. The film is one monumental eye roll in terms of story, but gazing upon its colorized noir landscape is something to fetishize. It’s a solid case of style over substance, but I hardly suspect that this was on purpose; I assume those behind it were told to make Monroe look good but ended up with something paradisaically lavish in relation to the whole.
For a story of low pulp grace, Niagara needs that added oomph. In the film, Monroe stars as Rose Loomis, a blond knockout on vacation in Niagara with her husband, George (Joseph Cotten), after his release from an army hospital. Suffering from PTSD, George is prone to mood swings and erratic behavior; Rose quickly realizes that taking him back to the place of their honeymoon might not have been such a good idea.
As they’re getting ready to leave, though, they’re approached by Polly and Ray Cutler (Jean Peters and Max Showalter), newlyweds slated to take the Loomis’ cabin once they depart. But their arrival coincides with the first time George has been able to sleep in weeks. Rose, too seductive to turn away, begs the couple to let them be, possibly take a less scenic bungalow in the process. Polly, a girl-next-door all grown up, generously agrees, to the dismay of Max, who seems to view Rose as someone so ethereally attractive that she couldn’t possibly be real.
Their newfound neighboring leads to quaint friendship, but getting to know the Loomis’ proves to be jeopardizing. Polly inadvertently learns that Rose is having an affair with a man much younger than her husband, and that George views Rose as a no-good tramp; he seems ready to snap at any moment. So we can agree that nothing positive will come out of Rose and her lover’s (Richard Allen) hush-hush plot to murder George and run away together.
But, being rosily Technicolor and starring the most ravishing movie star ever to set foot in Hollywood, everything about Niagara is seeped in romanticism, its flirting with danger and violence more a felicitous part of its ambience than a realistic embodiment of sin. Like in all film noir, there’s something lascivious about murder plots and extramarital affairs, and the movie taps into those ideologies with expected temptation.
Polly and Ray, so squeaky clean, are fine as far as working as the film’s angel figures, but they aren’t nearly as interesting as Rose and George, a classic hateful twosome in the same breath as other noir marriages of days past. (It also might have to do with the fact that Peters and Showalter are more than slightly annoying with their aw shucks delivery, while Monroe and Cotten are investing and convincing.)
So it’s all functional, and Monroe has the kind of star power so potent you’d swear she could do anything and make it something to cherish. But she’s better off in light comedies, the later in the year How to Marry a Millionaire and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes better examples of her talents and better films in general. Niagara’s just dandy. But style, and Monroe’s presence, can only go so far before cheapery begins to show. C+