52 Before 62 — #42 Niagara (1953)

Niagara poster.jpgDirected by Henry Hathaway

Written by Charles Bracket, Richard L. Breen and Walter Reisch

Starring Marilyn Monroe, Joseph Cotton, Jean Peters and Michael Showalter

Marilyn Monroe is a legendary figure.  I won’t say she’s legendary as an actress, because that’s never really what people think about when they think about her.  She’s really legendary for her sex appeal, and as a sex symbol.

On the one hand, it’s fair she’s a legendary sex symbol – you only need to look at her, and her onscreen qualities, to get a sense of the heat she generates.  On the other hand, it’s unfair she isn’t also venerated for her acting.  After all, being a screen presence is not an easy thing to do – lots of charismatic people come across as stiff when the camera points at them but no more.  More than that, it’s hard to come across as convincingly sexy on film, which Monroe can do.  Having presence, and the wherewithal to be convincingly sexy, are skills a good actress possesses.

But I’m not here merely to gaze at Monroe with slack-jawed wonder.  I’m here to make the case she actually was a good actress who was too often forced into a certain box, and a certain range, and so was simply pegged as a dumb blonde by what roles she was forced to take and not as a good actress.  And if you focus only on those films which rely almost exclusively on her sex appeal, you would be justified to think she was just a dumb blonde.  But if you consider her role in The Misfits, or really look at what she’s doing in Some Like It Hot, you’ll see an actress of real skill and pathos, doing a stellar job of pushing the edges of the frame she’s locked into.

Of course, part of her legend – and also, James Dean’s – is built upon an early death, and a short career.  Monroe’s first roles of any note were in 1950’s The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve, and her last completed film was 1961’s The Misfits, which was released in early-1961.  Because she was dead by 1962 we were never forced to consider the sad middle-aged years of a fading sex symbol.  Or, to see what happens to a woman on one era tries to keep pace in the films of another era.  It’s hard to imagine where the Marilyn Monroe of The Seven Year Itch fits in with the films of the late-1960s, when there wasn’t much call for a 40-year-old dumb-blonde.  And that’s probably why she endures as she does.

So, while it’s sad thinking about how she never really got to try her hand at something like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – she certainly would have had an interesting take – it’s probably better we didn’t have to see that fade into mediocrity and embarrassment she was likely heading toward, even if she had to die to do it.

All that said, given the filmography she left behind it’s unfair to think of her only as a sex-symbol, because she was so much more than that.  She was a gifted comedian, was way smarter than she let on, and when given the chance to work a drama, she made the most of it.

What’s It About?

Ray and Polly (Michael Showalter and Jean Peters), are celebrating their honeymoon in Niagara Falls.  There they meet the one-time sheep farmer, George (Joseph Cotton), and his much-younger, and way-too-hot-for-him wife, Rose (Marilyn Monroe).  George is a bitter man and unpleasant to be around, ruing as he is having lost the sheep farm, and also harboring jealousy over Rose.  But he’s probably right to be jealous, because Rose has a murder plot cooked up with George as the victim.  Only, when her boyfriend botches the job it’s not only the boyfriend and Rose that wind up dead, but also George.

File:Marilyn Monroe Niagara.pngAny Good?

Niagara is what should be known as ‘Color Noir’, which is exactly what it sounds like.  A noir film, shot in color.  Which is a strange notion to consider, and one leading to strange results.  After all, noirs tend to be dark and take place at night, and this film is shot in beautiful color, mostly in the daytime, which tends to blunt some of the darker aspects of the story, which are decidedly noir.  After all, it’s got a brooding man, a sexy femme fatale, and a couple of noobs sort of caught up in the plot.

Image result for monroe niagara bed

One suspects the film was only made in color at all because Marilyn Monroe looks so good in it and why would you want to hide her in black and white?  But color does right by Monroe.  Sure, it’s a bit strange to see her waking up in the morning and crawling out of bed already in full makeup, but she at least smolders doing it.  She looks amazing and the film knows it and even exploits it.  After all, the first thing we see of Monroe is her lying in bed, pretending to sleep, and under the sheet over her we can see she’s clearly nude.  We see the genuine curve of her breast and even though the sheet stays perched just above her nipples, when she roles over and we see her bare back, there is no doubt she’s nude.  Much would later be made of Janet Leigh starting Psycho off by lying in bed with a man and wearing only a bra (on top), but that scene really seems to owe something to this one.

At times the film asks Monroe to be the femme fatale in all the fatale ways, and she is appropriately scheming and murderous at heart, just as you’d like.  To be fair, Monroe doesn’t break new ground here, only deepens it, and you can feel the importance of the performance by its absence when her character dies.  It leaves an undeniable hole at the middle of the thing.

As a film, Niagara is not great.  It’s certainly good enough, and the rest of the cast does what it can, even if they aren’t exactly great.  But being good enough, and efficient at what it does, doesn’t change that aside from Monroe and the location, there isn’t much here you haven’t seen anywhere else.  Doesn’t change that the film has an ending that feels tacked on and confusing.  If there’s any place the film stands out it’s that it gives new meaning to Chekov’s gun, only in this place it substitutes a boat going over Niagara Falls for a revolver.

Charles Brackett

Charles Brackett was one of three credited screenwriters on this film – he was also the producer and helped push the thing along.  In the history of the Oscars there have been few men, or women, who’ve won three Oscars for writing.  Paddy Chayefsky did it for Marty, The Hospital, and Network.  Woody Allen did it for Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Moonlight in Paris.  Billy Wilder did it for The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, and The Apartment.  Well, Charles Bracket, an erstwhile collaborator with Wilder, did it as well, winning for The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, and Titanic (1953).

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