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 Cotten, 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.