NIAGARA (1953): The Technicolor Film Noir
I recently read a post on the Alfred Hitchcock Geek blog that compared Hitch’s VERTIGO to Henry Hathaway’s NIAGARA, and all the similarities fascinated me. I had seen NIAGARA a few years back, and while I enjoyed the film, I hadn’t really taken a second look at it. I didn’t even know who Joseph Cotten was when I saw it, I just wanted to see Marilyn Monroe. I figured it was time I looked at this film again, taking notes this time.
For those of you who haven’t seen NIAGARA, I’ll give a short summary. (And I’ll have to include spoilers for the sake of discussing certain points, so I apologize.) The film is about two couples, the troubled Rose and George Loomis (Monroe and Cotten) and the clean-cut Polly and Ray Cutler (Jean Peters and Max Showalter). Both couples are staying at the Rainbow Cabins by the Niagara Falls, and it’s immediately clear that the Loomis’ marriage is on the rocks. George isn’t completely mentally stable, and his provocative wife doesn’t help matters. After meeting the Loomises, the Cutlers go sightseeing and Polly sees Rose passionately kissing another man. After a little while, the audience finds out that Rose and her lover are planning on killing George. The plan goes awry, though, when Rose goes to the morgue to identify her husband and instead finds her lover on the slab. She faints and has to be put in the hospital to recuperate. Polly finds out that George is alive, and although he pleads with her to keep quiet, she tries to convince Ray and the police that George isn’t dead. Rose finally comes to and decides to go back to Chicago. George follows her, though, and subsequently kills her. The police try to find George, but he’s able to escape and steals a boat that has Polly onboard. The police chase the boat, but it runs out of gas and is pulled towards the Falls. George saves Polly by pushing her onto a large rock while he goes down the waterfall in the boat.
The first thing that I noticed about the movie was George’s voiceover in the very beginning. It’s the only part where he has a voiceover, which I find interesting. We immediately see that he’s jaded and a little philosophical. It really reminded me of a kind of existentialism, the way he talked about the Niagara Falls and the parallels to life. Anyway, soon after that, we learn that George is a Korean War veteran, which accounts for his disillusion with the world. This immediately made me think of film noir. Film noir came around during World War II, and the biggest characteristic of the genre is its cynicism and gritty reality.
George Loomis definitely has this trait. He’s the villainous hero—sure, he murdered two people, but keep in mind that those people tried to kill him first. His love for Rose was very deep, so her betrayal had to have been a tough pill to swallow. Even after he strangles her, he goes back to sit by her body with a look of pure anguish and hurt on his face. It’s not like he’s some cold-blooded killer. And then there’s the fact that he saved Polly in the end.
Rose Loomis is the definition of “femme fatale.” She wears tight clothes; she practically gives a smoldering look to every man she sees; she has a lover on the side, whom she convinces to kill her husband. I have to say, Marilyn Monroe was very well cast for this part. We know that she can be sexy, but this role makes that sexiness so dangerous and Monroe is just superb.
The Loomises are easily the more interesting couple. The Cutlers are like the ideal 1950s couple, full of youth and a sort of purity. But they’re so dull. Polly has no flaws, and Ray makes me cringe. He’s such a dork, and he constantly tries to sexualize Polly. Take for example the scene where he’s taking Polly’s picture in the courtyard. She’s wearing a bathing suit and is trying to talk to Ray when he suddenly decides that the lighting is perfect for a photo. He then proceeds to tell Polly to stick her chest far out, clearly thinking of the voluptuous Rose.
You can tell Polly’s uncomfortable, and when Rose abruptly appears, it’s like she just stepped out of Ray’s head. The Cutlers just annoy me, so the flawed and disturbed Loomises are instantly more attractive to me. They’re dark and full of so much emotional turmoil—it’s great to watch.
There are a few things I learned from reading the little booklet that came with the DVD. It’s always important to know who the director is, and apparently Henry Hathaway had made film noirs in the ‘40s. This explains all the noir elements I found in NIAGARA, such as the use of shadows, especially in the Loomis’ cabin. There are multiple shots of George or Rose with shadows from the blinds crossing their faces.
Another thing I learned was that the scene where Rose goes to identify George at the morgue was originally shot in black-and-white, with only the actors’ eyes and hair in color. Unfortunately, my DVD version was all in color, so I’m not sure what happened there. It would’ve been cool to see, and I’m sure it was a shout-out to noir films, like Rose’s death scene is. Once again, there are shadows all around her and George, and the shot of her body sprawled on the floor has been a favorite in film noir.
Something I find funny, and maybe intentional on the screenwriter’s part, was the fact that Loomis rhymes with “doom” and “gloom.” Foreshadowing? Or just a coincidence? I love it either way. If you haven’t seen NIAGARA, I’d recommend it. As you can tell, it’s quite interesting and the performances by Cotten and Monroe are fantastic. It’s one of the best film noirs you never knew was a film noir.