Bright Lights Film Journal

Summer Movie Essential: NIAGARA (1954)

A strangely soothing, a sun-drenched proto-neo-noir, NIAGARA is one of my favorite Marilyn Monroe movies, up there with DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK and THE MISFITS in its ability to capture the sociopathic allure of Monroe (this is the film with her infamous “longest walk”), and Niagara Falls makes the perfect backdrop for her dangerous sexuality; the cascading water forms a chthonic curtain that drapes around Monroe’s Venus in a ceaseless embrace.

The dysfunctional death drive underpinning Monroe’s allure is what’s key here, with Joseph Cotten’s shell-shocked sheep rancher George Loomis having ruined his life in pursuit of making Monroe’s flirty bar girl, Rose, happy (via gifts and trips to night clubs–never enough). Their trip to the falls is supposed to heal their rift, but Monroe’s Rose is actually luring him there to make him jealous and crazy in front of the other guests at the fall-side motel, and thus his murder will look like suicide. Joseph Cotten gets our sympathy, and when you sympathize with someone sleeping in the same cabin as Monroe, you know he must be a good actor. Some claim Cotten is “miscast” in the role. I think miscast is the whole point: he stands in for every “human” male in the audience who is too old or too plain or too whatever, the types who long for Monroe’s quivering form but know–deep down–they would never be able to keep up with her for long even if they got her. She’d leave them broke, broken-down, and broken-hearted, much the worse for having ever gotten involved, since now they could never enjoy “mere life” without her awesome sexuality in their private constellations. And yet, knowing all that, if she cast her eye their way, they’d still jump into that lethal current in a hot minute.

Contrasting this doomed tragicouple are the “protagonists” a clean-cut young couple on their belated honeymoon, played by Casey Adams and Jean Peters. Clearly, producer-writer Charles Brackett identifies more with the Loomis character and shows Adams’ grinning all-American boy up for the jackass he is. Remember, this is the same Brackett who collaborated with Billy Wilder on the caustic SUNSET BOULEVARD and so many others, and it’s clear that this lampooning of the bogus enthusiasm of the “gray flannel suit” salesmen type (so de rigeur on the conformist 1950s landscape) is intentional: “We’re the Cutlers!” Adams announces frombehind the whee of his shiny new convertible when they pull into the cabin grounds; he’s oblivious no one cares. This is a man for whom American capitalism is designed, he wallows in it, unashamed and unconscious of his own odiousness. For him, Monroe’s wiggly walk is alluring (“get out the firehose!”) but he’d never dream of pursuing her; he’s the type who “by the numbers” was invented for. If he was born in a different place at a different time, he’d probably join in on a stoning of Monroe for not wearing a veil with equal bland enthusiasm.

Peters as the wife is allowed to be much more restrained and human, and her connection with George Loomis in his trashed hotel room (she goes to bandage his hand after he smashes Monroe’s favorite record) has a moment of genuine connection. You get the feeling that Polly is drawn to George because of what he is not, i.e. full of bluster and meaningless enthusiasm, not patronizing or shallow. While Monroe and Adams provide the American cliche “types” (the pneumatic femme fatale and the grinning jackass salesman) the more restrained Polly and George linger in shadow as a gloomy contrast, real characters, with sorrow and quietude in their natures, and as a result just a little lost in the sunny conformity of their era.

Another plus is how quiet the film is (when George or his boss, played by the Jack Benny Show’s Don Wilson aren’t bellowing and guffawing). The restraint in use of music is most effective; the score only bursts to life during key moments of danger. Otherwise there is only the ambient, soothing rush of the falls continuous in the background, both comforting and eerie, exactly what a film you watch over and over on DVD in an insomniac haze should be; the quiet emptiness of the town in contrast to the mad rush of the falls creates an almost zen-garden sense of contemplation. You can imagine Siddartha ending up working as a motel manager around here, attuned to the profound mystic frequencies, yet the environment functions also both as a classic “automotive tourist trap Americana” spot and a perfect backdrop for Monroe’s cthonic scheming. The result is a movie as durable as a life preserver, the perfect film to keep you cool during the hot summer city months, glad to have access to the beauty of Monroe and the falls but grateful to be in the relative safety of your own little sanctum.