Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 1987

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

"There isn't any other song": Niagara (1954)

To celebrate Marilyn's special day (yesterday, June 1), I want to celebrate NIAGARA all over again!

NIAGARA is my favorite Marilyn Monroe movie (dramatic category), with her performance and form-fitted red dress so perfect against the misty location shoot backdrop that I play it constantly during my more stressed moments, both soothing (the water) and distracting (the curves). DON'T BOTHER TO KNOCK and THE MISFITS feature more nuanced (as in vulnerable, batshit crazy) MM characters, but neither quite captures the paradoxical cunning and sheer sexual potency the actress was capable of like NIAGARA, in which she is a femme fatale par excellence. Here the dysfunctional death drive underpinning Monroe's allure is elegantly tapped into via the iconography of the falls and realized brutally in the crushed soul of Joseph Cotten as her cuckolded older husband. He's a bit of a loser, and I can sure relate.

Falling for Marilyn has always seemed to me like a bad idea, like Dracula in reverse: Dracula takes and takes, MM gives and gives until you just have to run and hide in a dark cool corner, which is almost worse. Most protagonists in MM films are tempted by her unyielding yielding but manage to escape before it's too late. Joseph Cotten's shell-shocked sheep rancher George Loomis, on the other hand, starts out his tour already totally worn to a shaky "In the Gloaming" rocking chair nub. He's super-jealous of his young trophy wife, Rose (Monroe) a "tramp" on whom he's flitted away his ranch and life's savings to buy expensive gifts and dance club bar tabs. Their stay at the falls is supposed to heal their rift but Rose is actually luring him there to make him jealous and crazy in front of the other motel guests for purposes too shocking to reveal here. Suffice it to say, even though he's far from sympathetic, Loomis gets our sympathy, and when you sympathize with someone who gets to sleep with Monroe, you know something's wrong. 

Some claim Cotten is "miscast" in the role of George Loomis. I think miscast is the whole point: Cotten represents any man who gets sucked into the rushing flow of Marilyn's hot voodoo and has no choice but to let the flow either drown him or send him over the edge and down down down to the rocks below. He's every "human" male in the audience who longs for Monroe's quivering form but knows, deep down, if he got her in real life she would destroy him, leave him broke and broken-hearted, much the worse for having ever gotten involved since now he could never enjoy "mere life" without her awesome sexuality in his private constellation. And yet, our "human" male viewers nonetheless also know that if she cast her eye their way, they'd still jump into that lethal current like a lemming, tossing savings and sanity to the wind in her wake.

Wouldn't you?

Contrasting this doomed tragicouple are a pair of clean-cut marrieds (Casey Adams and Jean Peters) on their belated honeymoon. While producer-writer Charles Brackett treats George Loomis like a tragic fall guy hero, Casey Adams' grinning all-American Madison Avenue square is lampooned ala a Frank Tashlin comedy. "We're the Cutlers!" he announces from his convertible driver's seat as they pull into the cabin grounds, as if he expects everyone to cheer and break out the sparklers. He brings his books to "catch up on his reading," to which the Canadian border patrolman--scoping out Peters' sexy body in the passenger seat-- shakes his head in sad disbelief. Sheer thickness of skull has apparently shielded Mr. Cutler from the monstrous sublimation of sex that constitutes his plastic fantastic Madison Avenue scene. For him, Monroe's hussy walk is alluring--"Get out the fire hose!" he says when she saunters by that evening--but he'd never dream of pursuing. He doesn't even pursue his wife, except to take cheesecake shots of her sunbathing. He's strictly commercial, as Frank Zappa would say. The production code never thought a guy like this would be the result of all their moral meddling. He's enough to make the Pope send for Mae West.

His wife Polly (Peters) is allowed to be much more restrained and human, meanwhile, and her big scene with Loomis in his petulantly trashed cabin offers a moment of genuine connection, probably the only one in the whole film. Unlike their American dream caricature mates, the more restrained Polly and George linger in shadow as a gloomy contrast: real characters, with sorrow and quietude in their natures, struggling with the shrill farce that passes for 'normal' in 50s America. But opposites attract, and though these muted key types might find some weird bond, they are chained to their respective "phonies" like life support.

Another reason I dig this film: the soothing quietude -- the rush of the falls-- is constant and reassuring. When George or his boss (Don Wilson, from the Jack Benny show) aren't bellowing and guffawing, it's totally serene. The score only bursts to life during key moments of danger or foreshadowing of danger. Otherwise there is only the ambient, soothing rush of the falls, both comforting and eerie, everything a film you watch over and over on DVD in an insomniac haze should be. The quiet emptiness of the town in contrast to the mad rush of the falls creates a sense of contemplation. You can imagine Siddhartha ending up working as a motel manager around here, attuned to the profound mystic frequencies, and perhaps he has, and is even there now... yet the environment functions also both as a classic "automotive tourist trap" and a perfect backdrop for Monroe's fatale Americain scheming. The result is a movie as durable as a life preserver, the perfect film to keep you cool during the hot summer city months, glad to have access to the beauty of Monroe and the falls but grateful in the end to be just where--and with whom--you are.

(a different form of this article originally appeared in Bright Lights After Dark 08)


  1. Hey, I am making the rounds to remind everyone about the "Reading the Movies" exercise I started. I'm going to compile everyone's lists into one master list in a week or two, so jump in! The original post can be found here:


  2. Love this movie -- the scene where the falls light up at night is just beautiful. Film Noir in vibrant color...gotta love it!

    I totally agree that Cotton is just right for this role -- he certainly conveys a man beaten down by a bad love.