It Came From TCM: Niagara (1953) Slowly I Turned, Step by Step

After a month long affair with Turner Classic Movies and their awesome horror programming in October, I thought I could kick the habit in November, but it seems like I'm more locked in than ever. With a steady stream of noir, comedy, horror, and the just plain obscure and weird, my DVR seems to constantly fill up with selections from the TCM vaults. So what better way to clear some of these up than by talking to you folks about them, so check back here each Wednesday in November for another classic film from the cable network. Usually in a given month, TCM puts the spotlight on a star or director, but occasionally they'll throw together a theme. This month is one of those occasions with each Monday and Wednesday night featuring films from famous blondes. Over the month the network will feature platinum classics from May West, Veronica Lake, Ursula Andress, Grace Kelly, Carol Lombard, and Jayne Mansfield. Naturally no celebration of Hollywood blondes would be complete without Marilyn Monroe, but tonight's film features a Marilyn many may not recognize. The ditsy sexpot of The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot is nowhere to be found and instead Marilyn slips into the cool, crisp skin of a femme fatale for a trip to Niagara (1953).

Polly and Ray Cutler (Jean Peters and Max Showalter) arrive in Niagara Falls for a belated honeymoon only to find their cabin is still occupied by another couple, The Loomis', Rose and George (Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotton). Rose is blonde, beautiful, and overtly sexual, but her husband is an older man, jealous, and possibly mentally unstable. Accepting another cabin, the Cutlers try to settle in, but Polly finds herself drawn into George and Rose's world. After seeing Rose cheating on her husband and tending to George's hand when he cuts it in a fit of rage, Polly begins to feel sympathy for the blonde's put upon hubby. What neither of them suspects is that Rose is planning his demise. Rose's lover attacks George under the falls, but falls to his own death instead. Collecting the lover's shoes in instead of his own on the return trip, soon everyone, including Rose, thinks George is dead, and he's got a murder of his own on the mind.

If someone described this movie to me, visions of black and white scenes sharply filmed would dance in my head, but even though Niagara was filmed in color it doesn't get much more Noir than this. Thematically it fit right in with Film Noir. The film's events hinge on the sexual powers of one woman while another, more conservative, woman is pulled toward that shadowed world. There are also no easy answers, no heroes, and the bad guys get what bad guys have coming to them. Stylistically it also comes through. Though color inhabits every frame, there's a deft use of shadow and framing to set the tone for the film. Director Henny Hathaway perfectly translated the classic '40's Noir look of his films Kiss of Death, The Dark Corner, and Call Northside 777 and brought it into the color era. The transition from black and white to color was a challenge for many directors, but Hathaway was clearly up to the task. Several of the scenes I'd like to mention specifically come late in the film and would spoil the film, but there are some particular stunners where the melding of color into the shadows and light push the Noir form into full color fruition.

While Jean Peters and Max Showalter were the main characters of the film, Niagara clearly belongs to the less savory pairing of Cotton and Monroe. Peters seems like the literal 'girl next door' when compared to Monroe, but she holds her own and even shows off some sex appeal. (In her next film, Pickup on South Street, Peters would inhabit the dangerous female lead instead to great effect.) Showalter (Sixteen Candles, '10') seems like he has the least to do, and all that is expected of his character is to be a solid, stand-up guy. If Peters and Showalter represent middle America of the 1950's, then Cotton and Monroe must be the decadence of city life. Cotton gets to show off rage early in the film, but when he gets to go full psycho, he summons the same inner evil he channeled in Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt. I love to see Cotton in these kind of roles because he has the ability to turn on a dime. On the other hand, Monroe plays a character unlike any other I've seen from her. The film clearly relied on her sexuality, which was on full display. (I would say they don't make gals like that anymore, but they do, they just starve themselves instead of looking like a woman.) Niagara falls into Marilyn's career just as she was becoming known as a sex icon (Playboy would publish their first issue the same year), and for the next decade, Marilyn's looks were emphasized beyond her acting ability. For another role of this caliber from the blonde bombshell, I also suggest 1961's The Misfits co-starring Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift.  

Niagara doesn't rank as one of the all-time best Noir films, but it does make for an interesting late entry into the genre. The film's use of color, its meditations on sexuality going into the '50's, and solid performances from the villainous stars make it more than worth watching. It's easy to remember Marilyn Monroe in one way, and generally that way is in a white dress with air blowing up it, but Niagara proves that she could play more than the spaced out sexpot if given the chance. It also proves a good point about TCM. I've probably seen this title in the store more than a few times. I've noticed it's stars and made note of it, but the underwhelmingly bland title didn't inspire me to check it out. Turner Classic is the type of place where it's easy to give films a chance, and while Niagara didn't get me over the barrel, it did make me falls for it somewhat.(Plus I got to use a completely unrelated Three Stooges reference in the title. So my work here is done. )

Bugg Rating


  1. It's a cool little movie, one of several movies where Monroe got to play rather dark roles and did a pretty good job of it. She's also very good as the psycho in Don't Bother To Knock.

  2. dfordoom, thanks for the comment. I've never seen Don't Bother to Knock either, I'll have to check it out!


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