I naturally expected Niagara to be all about its young blonde star and that she’d be the heroin. Well, kind of and…not really. That honour must go to the talented Jean Peters who’s acting ability made for a believable and quite modern hero.
Marilyn is indeed an impressive presence and, commenting on the cinematographic focus on her physique, the Variety review of the time nailed it well enough: “…the natural phenomena have been magnificently photographed on location…" giving equal billing to the falls and Miss Monroe herself.
Yet this film is much more than a chance to ogle nature’s charms, it’s an intense and unsettling full-colour “noir” that unflinchingly deals in the battle for life over surrender.
A young couple, Ray (Casey Adams) and Polly Cutler (a superb Jean Peters), have come to Niagara for a belated, modest honeymoon. They arrive, car tellingly packed full of books (how long have they been wed?) and yet with a naïve glow all over them: excited to be at the falls and with each other.
Ray is also thrilled to be within site of his company’s main factory and hopes to meet up with his senior colleague – the guy sure knows how to run a honeymoon!
If this sets a reassuringly prosaic scene, their meeting with the oddest couple in the Rainbow Cabins chalets soon spins things a bit further out. The Loomis’ have outstayed their welcome but Rose (Marilyn Monroe) pleads for them to be able to stay in the plum chalet, as her husband, George (Joseph Cotton), is unwell.
We first encounter George walking alone amongst the rocks at the base of the falls, he walks back to their chalet to find Rose seemingly still asleep (she isn’t). His early morning rambles are the first indication of a mind disturbed by the brutality of war, he can’t settle and Rose provides further provocation.
She is much younger than him and far too beautiful as well – we wonder at the circumstance that has brought these two together and we know for sure that they cannot last. But sometimes they’re together and you can sense that there may have been something once but George appears to be the one incapable of holding things together…or is he also being driven to distraction by someone who knows what she’s doing.
Rose steps out in the evening and joins in the hootenany running between the chalets. She puts on her favourite record and revels in the tune for a few moments, singing along lost in the words as Polly and Ray who marvel in their different ways at this oddly passionate woman.
But then George staggers out of his chalet and rips the disc apart – angered in just the way Rose intended. Poly follows him back into the chalet and bandages his bleeding hands…the first sign of her strength of character – George is unreasonable but she’s not going to let that stop her help him.
Rose and George continue to pick at each other and the former plans her escape. She tricks George into going to the tunnel under the falls where he is to encounter her younger, stronger lover.
Spoilers ahead: George goes missing and a body is found but… it’s not George and Rose feints as she discovers he has turned the tables. And that, might possibly have been that, had Polly not seen George alive and well… he confesses to her what had happened and it sounds like self defence. He wants Polly to let him “stay dead” and start afresh but she can’t see why he doesn’t just go to the police and give himself up.
A triangular game of cat and mouse begins during which George catches up with Rose with the inevitable fatal outcome… it’s not pretty and, tragically, George returns to the body in almost apologetic fashion.
On the run, George steels the boat that Polly and Ray are using for a fishing trip with his colleagues. George heads off but with an unconscious Polly on board… the boat runs out of gas and begins to drift towards the falls in a tense finale…
Niagara is maybe the first time I’ve seen Marilyn Monroe playing a morally ambiguous character and in fairly straight fashion. She’s still the over-made-up, well-stacked dame of fifties sexual fascination but a real-life version. She’s used George to get her somewhere in life and now she’s heading off with someone else.
It’s interesting how, with a slight shift in emphasis, her meaning becomes darker. From someone seemingly flaunting her agenda in an obvious way she is transformed into someone who is still doing that but as a mask for deeper motives. She acts well and is of course a joy to behold. A natural redhead her whole act was exactly that anyway… how easily we confuse the myth with the Miss.
Joseph Cotton is incredibly intense, an actor of strength and courage. He's quite hard work to watch - Orson Wells knew what he was dealing with here. He conveys all of the misery his unfortunate life has heaped on his narrow shoulders. He can’t sleep…he’s tense and nervous, can’t relax… (Ithankyou Mr David Byrne!) but he initially only kills in self defence and, ultimately, kills Rose in pity as much as revenge.
He’s decent enough to battle to save Polly even though it costs his own life: he’s dead already with Rose and he having mutually assured each other’s destruction.
Then there’s Jean Peters – of whom I knew nothing before hand – but who puts in an intelligent and compelling performance. There’s an almost feminist edge to her role in this film: she’s decisive, quick thinking and morally alert – far more so than her jovial if slightly shallow husband. When the men just want this all neatly wrapped up she persists until the truth is uncovered.
Apparently, Peters always fought against her own “glamorisation” and there’s even a scene here in which Ray tries to get her to pose for a cheesecake bikini shot. The result was perhaps a more interesting persona that was more nuanced than many other actresses were allowed to be. But then film noire always did give room for people who had the chops to show shade along with light.
I’ll certainly be seeking out more of her films.
Niagara is frequently shown on TV and is also available from your friendly neighbourhood e-tailer.