Friday, January 29, 2010

#82: Niagara (Henry Hathaway, 1953)

Released: January 21, 1953

Director: Henry Hathaway; Screenplay: Charles Brackett, Richard L. Breen and Walter Reisch; Cinematography: Joseph MacDonald; Music: Sol Kaplan; Producer: Charles Brackett; Studio: 20th Century Fox

Marilyn Monroe (Rose Loomis), Joseph Cotten (George Loomis), Jean Peters (Polly Cutler), Max Showalter (Ray Cutler), Dennis O’Dea (Inspector Starkey), Richard Allen (Patrick), Don Wilson (Mr. Kettering), Lurene Tuttle (Mrs. Kettering), Russell Collins (Mr. Qua), Will Wright (Boatman)

- “You have to start laying your plans at thirteen for a dress like that…”

Compiling this list of my 100 favorite noirs reminded how underappreciated Henry Hathaway is. Film noir fanatics certainly recognize his talents, but even with a lot of enthusiasts, it is usually his masterpiece Kiss of Death that receives all the attention. In fact, noirs probably aren’t even the first style of films that people associate with Hathaway. Instead, the average classic movie fan will remember him for his westerns of the 1960s. But there is much more to his output and he made a number of outstanding films during the noir era. He was successful making a number of varied films within the genre, ranging from the newspaper noir of Call Northside 777 to the gangster revenge scenario of Kiss of Death, and so much more. Taking the time to watch these films for the second and third time has me appreciating what a tasteful, stylish director Hathaway was.

His visual style is enough to lift this run-of-the mill noir melodrama much higher than it would have placed in this countdown if a less interesting director had been at the helm. The main limitation of this 1953 release was likely the strongest selling point upon its initial release. Darryl F. Zanuck, then head of 20th Century Fox, thought that budding starlet Marilyn Monroe would fill the role of Rose Loomis perfectly, and thus saw the project as a star vehicle to further her popularity. This meant that large sections of the story were centered on showcasing the still-developing actress, depending almost entirely on the sheer allure of her sexuality to carry the story in places. She very nearly succeeds, but even the blond bombshell is not enough to completely hide flaws in the story.

Monroe is Rose Loomis, a gorgeous woman who is staying in a cabin at the Niagara Falls resort with her husband George (Joseph Cotten), a man recently released from a veterans mental hospital. Even into the 1950s, George remains scarred by his experiences in the Second World War. Also staying at the cabin are Ray (Max Showalter) and Polly (Jean Peters) Cutler, a recently-married couple who are finally taking a delayed honeymoon. The Cutlers instantly begin to question what is keeping the other couple together, as George never leaves the darkened hotel room, while Rose walks around the resort in a tight-fitting pink dress with the intention of turning the heads of every male in the zip code. While sightseeing around the Falls, Polly spots Rose kissing another man. Slowly, it begins to emerge that the two may be plotting to rub out George. Soon afterward, George is reported missing and Rose feints when called to the morgue to identify a recovered body. Assuming that George has died, the Cutlers carry on with their honeymoon as best they can – until Polly believes that she has spotted George at the Falls. Ray assures Polly that she is seeing things, but Rose knows the truth and begins scrambling to make a getaway.

The screenplay is limited, with a few implausibilities in the narrative and a somewhat predictable storyline. But the principal actors still manage to deliver convincing performances. Monroe’s Rose is put over on the sheer sexual magnetism she is able to exude on the screen. Rather than using such a description to degrade her acting ability, I think it’ s a compliment, as this is what the character calls for. Joseph Cotten shows some versatility in delivering one of the more unusual, sinister roles of his career. And Jean Peters is a good counterpoint to the vibrant Monroe, playing Polly as an intimidated wife, daunted by the spell that Rose is capable of casting over men. It is an interesting comparison between the two, as Peters as Polly Cutler is beautiful as well, but even still she is no match for the splendor of Rose.

Regardless of performances and screenplay, it is Henry Hathaway that elevates the entire production. Teaming with cinematographer extraordinaire Joseph MacDonald (who is already making his third appearance in the countdown!), they make spectacular use of Technicolor, while maintaining the sinister atmosphere on display in the best of noirs. The setting is conducive to memorable scenic shots and many of them are stunning, such as the entire late-night party scene outside of the cabins at the resort. Shots of characters in a darkened room, peering through venetian blinds toward a nighttime view of the Falls are gorgeous. Such particular scenes are very impressive, with Hathaway displaying the skills of a seasoned silent film director, expressing emotion without a single line of dialog. The murder sequence, with the sound falling out and the cuts to shots of the hanging bells, is spectacular. The guilty realization of the act by George, after spotting the red lipstick is equally impressive. So while it is not the best Hathaway has to offer in noir, it might be his most impressive achievement, as the movie likely should not come across as well as it does.


  1. Of all the films in which Monroe appears, I think her presence is the strongest here. She has never been more beautiful either. An underrated actress despite her reputation.

    I thoroughly enjoyed it even though some critics see it as a Hitchcock-light melodrama of little substance.

  2. I saw this film on the giant Loews Jersey City screen last year as part of their 'noir weekend' even though I had also seen it previously. As you rightly note, Joseph MacDonald's technicolor cinematography is spectacular, and this is one of Hathaway's best films. (and a deserved inclusion on this countdown). The visual style here does overcome some narrative implausibilities.

    One of your most impassioned reviews so far!

  3. Cracks in the storyline don not deter this film form being a joy. While Monroe may have been a limited dramatic actress, she does well here as the tart of a wife. Hathaway and MacDonald linger on her for long periods in various scenes, all contributing to the eroticism of this film. Add to that the amazing location scenes of a Niagara Falls and its surrounding area, now long gone make this is an enjoyable 50’s noir.

  4. Niagara #82? That speaks itself for the quality of the genre. It is VERY difficult to make a bad film noir. :)

    I love this color noir immensely.

  5. I agree with all comments thus far... a very enjoyable noir, if a bet flawed story-wise. Still a beautifully-shot film and I agree that Monroe is spot on throughout.

  6. Wow...this brings back memories. This was one of those "old movies" I remember watching as a kid and loving every bit of it. Yet I don't think I've watched it since. I had never even realized that was Joseph Cotten (who I grew to greatly admire when I saw "Shadow of a Doubt" and "The Third Man" as an adult).

    Loving the countdown by the way, Dave!


  7. Thanks, David! This is definitely a good noir, and probably could work as a good "gateway" film to ease someone into the genre if they're crazy about it to begin with.

    Thanks again for the compliment and I'm glad to hear that you're enjoying the countdown.