Lawrence Russell

Niagara (1953) dir. Henry Hathaway writ. Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch, & Richard Breen cine. Joe MacDonald (special effects Ray Kellogg) edt. Barbara McLean art. Lyle Wheeler, Maurice Ransford music Sol Kaplan

star. Joseph Cotten (George Loomis), Marilyn Monroe (Rose Loomis), Jean Peters (Polly Cutler), Casey Adams (Ray Cutler), Richard Allan (lover), Don Wilson, Dennis O'Dea, Lurene Tuttle, Russell Collins, Will Wright

Twentieth Century Fox

Niagara Falls, Canadian shore. A man staggers through the boulders and blowing mist of Horseshoe Falls at dawn, his proximity to the raging torrent so foolhardy we immediately suspect suicide. Even though the mist is arced with a bright rainbow, the interior voice is the standard film noir rap... or is it? The tone is humorless and bitter: "Why should the Falls drag me down here at five o'clock in the morning? To show me how big they are and how small I am? To remind me they can get along without any help?" Like an uncertain apostle at the gates of Hell, he turns and stumbles away from the roaring cauldron.

Eventually we learn that this is George Loomis (Cotten), failed sheep farmer and Korean vet, recently discharged from an army mental hospital where he has been treated for "battle fatigue". His real problem, however, is his discontented wife Rose (Monroe) who is tormenting him by flaunting her sexuality. At first we think this behavior is caused by her husband's instability... but fairly quickly her plan to dump him by getting her latest lover to murder him is revealed. Money is not an issue... and sex, although an issue, remains unexamined.

Monroe in Niagara

The lover, a young man living in a local boarding house, remains generic and anonymous, and we never learn what he's about... if he followed Rose to Niagara as part of a plan and why he would agree to murder... although some would say one rendezvous with Monroe is enough motivation for any man. In fact, he's the one who gets killed, although this is offstage, left as unseen action in the cave below the Falls... so when Loomis reappears wearing his would-be assassin's white loafers, no sympathy is wasted. This technique of withholding key information achieves its most sublime result when Rose goes to the morgue to identify her husband's body, passes out in shock on seeing her mangled lover instead.

Most of this off-stage action is a question of "point-of-view". In Niagara this is mostly through the eyes of the Cutlers, a young couple from Ohio who are taking a belated honeymoon at the Rainbow Cabins overlooking the Falls. While they had reserved Cabin B -- the one with the best view -- they find it still occupied by the Loomis couple, now in a state of crisis. But the Cutlers are nice people, especially Polly Cutler (Jean Peters), who represents the kind of steady woman poor old Loomis should've had instead of this devil in a red dress, Rose, the ex-waitress from a beer hall in Duluth.

It's Polly who spots Rose necking with her lover in the wet shadows of the Falls... and it's Polly who bandages George's cut after he throws a public fit and smashes Rose's favorite 78, "Kiss" ...and it's Polly who recognizes that he's still alive and becomes an inadvertent hostage in the desperate finale in the rapids at Chippawa. Polly is solid, represents the kind of woman George's mother probably was... solid, like the 1907 Maxwell model George is building as a sort of therapy when Rose is out slutting with her lover.


The restored version of Niagara now available on DVD allows us to see the real protagonist, that is, the Niagara Falls. As "spectacle", the landscape functions primarily as an obvious symbol for passion... and to a lesser extent as a sort of mythological setting, like the River Styx and the crossing to Hades. The cinematography is superb, perhaps at the expense of the action.

The fabulous panoramic views obscure the fact that Niagara is a standard film noir thriller, although the crime is strictly passion and murder without the criminal obsession with easy money. Its influence on Hitchcock's seminal neo-noir transitional film Vertigo can be seen not only in the use of a blonde fatale [Monroe versus Novak], a mentally unstable male [Cotten versus Stewart], but most obviously in the use of the bell-tower which is used as a sort of mystical beacon for the nefarious design of the female siren. While Vertigo has a powerful, dimensional use of the supernatural, Niagara fails to develop the nympho-somnabulism of its femme fatale or the mythological possibility inherent in its setting... which is a pity, as the Niagara thereby loses any deeper meaning in terms of psychology and fate.

How so? For example, the use of the lovers' special tune ["Kiss"] as a signalling device when played by the bell-tower near the Falls is clever, yet it lacks the emotional possibility of a Vertigo because it isn't integrated fully enough into the score. And despite the period sexual vibe of Marilyn Monroe and an old pro like Joseph Cotten, neither are as comfortable in their roles as are Kim Novak and James Stewart.

Still, even when the direction or editing falters at times, many scenes and setups are quite brilliant.

What limits Niagara from being great is its cursory characterization. We simply don't believe that George Loomis was ever a "sheep farmer", and although we can can believe he is a Korean vet, not enough is made of this to make it tangible. The intention might be to make his faithless wife his real illness and his war condition an excuse, yet somehow it all seems like a script writer's afterthought, a hurriedly invented background for the character. So too Rose Loomis, whose character is as shallow as a silhouette, a mere sexual icon from the theatre of dream.

Charles Brackett, who produced this movie, is listed as one of its three writers... and we know he was the main writer of an acerbic study of alcoholism The Lost Weekend (1945) and the outstanding noir drama Sunset Boulevard (1950), so he had the chops to do it well. It is a measure of something however that it was copied by Hitchcock and his writers Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor (ostensibly adapting D' entre les morts, a French thriller) for Vertigo (1958). While it's true that Hitchcock often used towers, roofs, cliffs and other high places as scenes of crises in his films, the action in the bell-tower is too similar to be marked off as "coincidental'. True, Hitchcock made better use of the female trance-walking... and true, Vertigo has much better characterization.

The industrial method of the Hollywood film by necessity subverts the valued tradition of artistic integrity and originality. That Vertigo should succeed where Niagara fails while stealing its core dramatic modus operandi is galling, yet typical of techno-art and pop culture. As directors, both Hitchcock and Hathaway were indentured studio servants from an early age. Within that culture, what we call the rip-off is merely a modality.

The direction of the cinematography in Niagara is very good. Again, there are some similarities here too -- the omniscient overhead angle, for example, a favorite of several directors/cinematographers of the era [e.g. the great Siodomak/Planar bird's eye of the armoured truck in Criss-Cross] but which is often cited as a Hitchcock invention.

Cotton closes in on Marilyn Monroe
in the bell-tower [Niagara 1953]

Niagara: the bell-tower

Where Niagara fits within the tradition of film noir is transitional, yet nonetheless evolutionary. The femme fatale is stripped of artifice, so the crime is simplified to pure sex. The stage settings of shadowed interiors and closed urban exteriors in black and white film stock are abandoned in favor of brilliant light-filled external locations filmed in Technicolor. And where interior scenes occur, the cinematography often reverts to the established noir style of indirect lighting through venetian blinds and the geometrics of long expressionist shadows. We see this in certain scenes in the Rainbow Cabins, although the most striking example is Rose's death scene in the bell-tower.

© LR 8/03


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