Niagara (1953) Henry Hathway

Marilyn Monroe made her name as a rising new film star in 1952.  In 1953 she exploded on the screen with three standout Technicolor productions, “Niagara,” “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and “How to Marry a Millionaire,” all of which would help define the Monroe celluloid doctrine. Her screen persona was now full blown and propelled her into the Top 10 list of Hollywood stars.

Henry Hathaway’s “Niagara” opens with two great shots of natural beauty, first is the mighty Niagara Falls with millions upon millions of gallons of water falling with God given power. The second shot is our first view of Marilyn Monroe lying naked under a thin sheet in her motel bedroom. Light shines through the sheet giving us a silhouetted shape of her right thigh. In her hand, a cigarette dangles over the side of the bed. The look on her face is one of satisfaction making one wonder what she was doing while her husband, Joseph Cotton, was off admiring the Falls. We quickly come to learn this marriage is in trouble. When she hears her husband’s keys unlock the door, she puts out the cigarettes, rolls over, her back to the door, faking she’s asleep. This all happens within the first three minutes of the film.

Joseph Cotten is George Loomis, a battle scarred war veteran who, with his wife Rose (Monroe), comes to Niagara Falls to repair their damaged marriage. At least on the surface that is what is happening. For Rose, the marriage is already dead and coming to Niagara Falls is just an excuse for her to continue her adulterous affair with her lover Patrick (Richard Allan). The lovers though have more than sex on their minds when Patrick agrees to kill George. Unfortunately, at least for Patrick and Rose, the plan turns sour when George overpowers Patrick tossing him into the Falls and his ultimate death. Rose attempts to escape but a game of the hunt and the hunted ends at the Falls with George choking the life out of his beautiful but faithless wife.

There is another couple is the film, happily married bland Polly and Ray Cutler (Jean Peters and Max Showalter) who become more entwined in the Loomis mess than they really wanted. In fact, though Monroe is the star of the film, her death occurs about two thirds into the story. The final act centers on a melodramatic chase by the police to catch George Loomis, who has hijacked a boat that unbeknownst to him has another passenger on board, Polly. The chase on the mighty river ends with the boat caught in the strong currents of the Niagara River heading toward the Falls with the two passengers still on board.

Unlike the Marilyn we saw in “Don’t Bother to Knock” just a year earlier, the Marilyn here is now closer to the Hollywood glamour girl we would come to know. There would be further refinements in her next two films softening the image to a more innocent sexiness that would sustain her for the rest of her career. But here her character is nasty and slutty; overtly sexy with a hint of disgust especially for her weak husband. Offsetting Marilyn’s steamy sexuality and nastiness is the beautiful but more down to earth beauty of Jean Peters. Peters character is beautiful and more importantly believable as a real woman while Marilyn’s, as it would be for the rest of her career, is a caricature, a teenage boy’s wet dream.

“Niagara” is a film about jealousy and lust. George is half insane with jealousy. Jealous of the attention Rose draws with her provocative dress and the way she walks. Rose is erotically charged and hungers after her young lover who in return craves his mistress to the point he is willing to do anything for her including kill her husband. All these steamy desires are made to seem more extreme when compared to the bland Cutler couple who have come to Niagara for a vacation and for Ray to meet his boss at the company where he works.

The film was written by Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch and Richard Breen and directed by well known Hollywood hard-ass Henry Hathaway. Hathaway was a no bullshit director who gave many actors a hard time, most famously Dennis Hopper. Like Otto Preminger, Hathaway had a reputation for being dictatorial. During the filming of the 1958 “From Hell in Texas,” a young Hopper refused to take direction from the veteran wanting to do a scene his way. This led to a long protracted battle of the wills with Hathaway eventually getting his way. With the film completed, Hathaway made sure Hopper was blackballed from working in big studio films for years. Ironically, in 1965, it was Hathaway who gave Hopper his entrance back into the film community when he cast him in the 1965 western “The Sons of Katie Elder.” Surprisingly, considering Marilyn’s well known history for tardiness on the set, Hathaway and Marilyn got along well during the filming. Her performance in the film as a scheming, self centered and slutty femme fatale is one of her best.

Critics at the time mostly focused on Marilyn’s sexuality but were still generous in giving her favorable reviews. The film opened in New York at the famed Roxy Theater and was a huge hit propelling Marilyn into the stratosphere of Hollywood stardom where she would remain for the rest of her short life.

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28 comments on “Niagara (1953) Henry Hathway

  1. Hate to nitpck, but it’s Joseph Cotten. I see film bloggers make this mistake all the time. I wonder how Hathaway kept from blowing his top with Monroe’s famously erratic behavior. Thanks for mentioning my book.

    • John Greco says:

      Totally an error that deserves to be nickpicked. Thanks, I will fix it. I was surprised myself to read that Hathaway and Monroe got along. He actually felt she was used badly by others.

  2. Readerman says:

    A terrifically enjoyable film, from Marilyn looking incredible in that red dress to the Falls, one of nature’s great sights. I laugh every time Ray Culture sees her emerge from her cabin: “Get out the fire hose.” Still, it’s Jean Peters that’s gorgeous here. How do the two male leads hook up with these two beauties?

    • John Greco says:

      Readerman,

      I have watched this film about five or six times and its always enjoyable. Monroe’s image was always a kind of male fantasy where Peters, gorgeous as you say, is a more realistic beauty than the idolized Monroe. Monroe just eats up the screen, she’s magic on film.

  3. KimWilson says:

    John, loved this review. In the Monroe Cannon (if we may call it that), Niagara is always overlooked. When she became a typecasting dream she stopped playing overtly bad women like Rose and I think it hurt her artistically. Had she been allowed to play more characters like this she might have been a happier actress.

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Kim!

      From this film Monroe went on to make GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES, HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONNAIRE and so on. All films that would, as you say, typecast her. She was a good comedic actress as she proved but she could handle a dramatic role too as she proved here.

  4. vinnieh says:

    Great post, the poster is certainly memorable.

  5. I really like Monroe in this movie; she’s terrific as a femme fatale. Cotten is great, too, as always. Thanks for reviewing this often-overlooked gem.

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks SS! Along with SLIGHTLY SCARLETT it’s another example of early color film noir. Monroe is terrific and Cotten is always great.

  6. The Lady Eve says:

    John, As I understand it, it was Howard Hawks who was first convinced that Marilyn Monroe could be best developed as a star in films less ‘realistic’ than “Don’t Bother to Knock,” “Niagara,” etc. Which was where “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” directed by him, came in. The persona that evolved from that film made her a superstar and became truly mythic if, eventually, confining. I don’t think Marilyn was ever going to be up to playing Grushenka in “The Brothers Karamazov (as she often proclaimed she wanted to) or Lady Macbeth (Lee Strasberg claimed he wanted to direct her in a stage version of “Macbeth”), but she was obviously more than a fleeting bombshell like Jayne Mansfield and had more depth and talent than her early (and now far less well known) idol, Jean Harlow. Had she been stronger and lived on, Marilyn could easily have been able to take the sorts of roles Shirley MacLaine was given in the ’60s (in fact, MacLaine ended up in two roles initially meant for Marilyn – in “Irma La Douce” and “What a Way to Go!”) and might well have moved into more mature dramatic roles as other beauties (Ava Gardner, Lee Remick, etc.) did.

    • John Greco says:

      Well said Eve. If I remember reading correctly Hawks was talking to Zanuck, who did not have much faith in MM’s acting talent, about putting her in less realistic films. It would have been great to have seen her and Jack Lemmon reunite in IRMA LA DOUCE. I always thought they made a great screen couple. Wilder always complained about how difficult she was to work with but always said it was worth it after you saw her on the big screen.

  7. Judy says:

    I’ve never seen this and must admit I hadn’t realised Monroe was in a thriller like this – the combination of her and Joseph Cotten sounds intriguing, and it’s yet another for me to add to the ever-growing list of films to see! I’ve also read quite a few books set around Niagara so it would be interesting to see a film made there. I haven’t seen much of Henry Hathaway’s work, but I have seen ‘The Sons of Katie Elder’, which you mention (a good Western but John Wayne looks so ill in it) and I did fairly recently see his ‘Shepherd of the Hills’ (1941), which I thought was good too – another one with John Wayne, this time as a young bootlegger in the Ozarks, made in very beautiful Tecnhicolor. Enjoyed your review, John, as always.

  8. John Greco says:

    Thanks Judy. I think you will enjoy this film and the Niagara Falls scenery is gorgeous. It is shot on the Canadian side of the falls which just fantastic. I am not familar at all with the second film you mention, SHEPARD OF THE HILLS. Thanks as always.

  9. Sam Juliano says:

    The film’s star is arguably cinematographer Joseph MacDonald whose color work here is a rarity in the world of film noir. Of course many would argue that Monroe’s presence alone make it essential, but certainly she does deliver one of her most memorable performance. Another excellent review John! I’m definitely a fan of the film.

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Sam. MacDonald certainly deserves credit here. This along with SLIGHTLY SCARLETT dispproved the theory that film noir had to be done in B&W. Of course, later on we had plenty of neo-noir films in the 70′s and after, CHINATOWN and L.A. CONFIDENTIAL to just name two.

  10. Dave Crosby says:

    Dear John,

    As a lifelong fan of Marilyn I must say that she held her own against one of nature’s wonders, the Falls. I disagree respectfully with the Lady Eve’s opinion that Monroe would never be capable of playing Grushenka or Lady Macbeth. A young actress who could abandon her studio contract, form her own film company and get Laurence Olivier to direct and co-star in her production of “The Prince and the Showgirl and then outshine Olivier, as many critics now agree, was most certainly capable of serious drama. I’m of the notion that she would have been surprisingly humane in the Shakespeare play. Her ability with all types of comedy indicated, I think, that her dramatic abilities would be equally special. Consider her work in “The Misfits.”

    A note: Viewing “Niagara” is one of the best ways to see the Falls because it saves you a lot of legwork and provides spectacular points of view, including shots from The Maid of the Mist, the boat that takes passengers very close to the cataract. And this was during the time the Canadian side was a lovely park.

    All my best,

    Dave

    • John Greco says:

      David,

      There is always room for different opinions here . As always, your thoughts are most welcome. The Lady Eve is an admirer of Monroe too and has written approvlngly of her work in THE MISFITS. That’s one film I have not seen in many years and need to revisit.

      I was at Niagara Falls way back as a nine or ten year old on a weekend trip with my parents. We visited both the U.S. and the Canadian side of the Falls and from what I remember, very little to be honest, the Canadian side was simply gorgeous. This had to be in the late 1950′s so it was only a few years after this film was made.

      Thanks again, as always for your input.

  11. dawn says:

    Marilyn Monroe, was at the peak of her beauty and she’s very good playing the part of the cheating wife. Amazing backdrop, this film is well worth seeing.

  12. Dave says:

    Niagra is one of those films I never think of searching for in my DVD collection, but every time I see it on TCM I feel compelled to watch it … Great post !!!

  13. V.E.G. says:

    Max Showalter is of Schwyzerdütsch (Swiss-German) origin. He never got married.

  14. Evelio says:

    Marilyn and Jen Peters became friends in real life. In fact after Peters married Hughes and became a recluse (at his request), she met with few of her friends from Hollywood and Monroe was one of those few. Hughes himself once commented to his lawyer that Jean had been greatly affected by Monroe’s death at 36.

  15. John Greco says:

    Evelio, Thanks for the information. I have read a few Monroe biographies some years ago but was not aware of this. Welcome!

  16. Evelio says:

    I agree with a comment made in this portal about Marilyn overshadowing Lawrence Olivier in “Prince and the Showgirl” -however, she didn’t overshadow Jean Peters in “Niagara”. In fact, I read come of the comments that male audiences wrote about Marilyn in those days. A few of them mentioned, “She’s the type of girl you’d like to have an affair with.” But the same guys commented on Jean Peters wrote things like, “She’s the type of girl you want to bring home and introduce to your mom.” Hence, your comments about Monroe and Peters are quite accurate. They were both beauties with diverse characteristics and I think that particular detail enhanced the film’s success.

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Evelio! Both women were obvious beauties but at almost opposite ends of the spectrum and this certainly does give the film another level.

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