Thursday, 24 October 2019

Movie Review: Niagara (1953)

A film noir featuring stunning scenery and Marilyn Monroe's first starring role, Niagara offers luscious visuals but suffers from underdeveloped characters and a distracted crime story.

Polly and Ray Cutler (Jean Peters and Max Showalter, credited as Casey Adams) head to the scenic Canadian side of Niagara Falls for a delayed honeymoon. At the motel they meet troubled couple Rose and George Loomis (Monroe and Joseph Cotten). George has spent time at an army mental hospital and remains agitated. Rose is bored with her husband and has no hesitation flaunting her sexuality.

As the Cutlers enjoy the local tourist attractions they stumble upon Rose carrying on an illicit affair with the hunky Patrick (Richard Allan). Polly feels sorry for George and reaches out to offer support. Rose has a nefarious plan in mind to move on with her life, but her plot will unexpectedly unravel, leaving Polly in the middle of churning danger.

The first film to feature Marilyn Monroe as the primary star name, Niagara shamelessly showcases both the famous falls and Ms. Monroe's figure. The murder-most-foul plot does contain intriguing nuggets including unresolved mental health and infatuation issues. But the narrative takes a back seat as director Henry Hathaway is preoccupied with finding the best angles to capture the forceful waterfalls and his force-of-nature star.

This includes celebrating her derriere and hip-swaying walk in a famous scene that lingers as Monroe sashays away from the camera. Hathaway also dresses - and undresses - his star in a series of legendary outfits, pushing 1953 cinematic boundaries and cannonballing Monroe into superstardom as the world's premier sex symbol.

Niagara's visual objectives demand vibrant exposition, and so this is a film noir bursting with colour. Hathaway plays with window blind shadows creating prison stripes and a few moments of suspense, but otherwise allows Rose's femme fatale and her evil intentions to stand alone against the rather incongruous backdrop of spectacular imagery.

With attention focused elsewhere, the real shadow falls on the wholesome characters of Polly and Ray. Supposedly the entryway into the story, they are reduced to passive observers as the plot unfolds. Ray is a dorky businessman oblivious to the evil brewing in the cabin next door, and he mainly represents the red-blooded male exhibiting helpless tongue-hanging-out lust at Monroe's sensuality. Meanwhile the attempts to insert Polly into the swirl of tension are only partially successful, and she also has to tolerate Ray's infantile attempts to overtly glamourize her once he's exposed to the Rose calibre of sexuality.

The conniving Rose and troubled George are by far the more interesting characters, but they are not provided sufficient context to harbour sympathy. The background of George's mental health troubles deserved a deeper dive than afforded in the script co-written by producer Charles Brackett.

Hathaway's best Hitchcockian sequence comes courtesy of a bell tower and a suspenseful chase up the stairs serving as a build-up to an act of sorrowful revenge followed by unexpected entrapment. Niagara is frustratingly sprinkled with moments of promise, but drenched by a near-exploitive yet star-making agenda.

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