Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

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 cunning sexual potency the actress was capable of. In most of her best known films she's kinda dumb, gullible, led by sex as if a leash, but in the best like NIAGARA and GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES that iconic allure is more a weapon she employs to her own ends. Unlike in SOME LIKE IT HOT, she doesn't wind up with the sticky end of the lollipop. Instead she is a femme fatale par excellence. The dysfunctional death drive underpinning her allure is elegantly tapped into via the iconography of the falls--the dangerous currents and harsh downward rock dash underneath the staggering beauty--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. My wounds from going over the dge still haven't healed.

Death drive or no, 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 isn't so lucky. He starts out this 'vacation' already worn to a shaky "In the Gloaming" rocking chair nub by her rapacious hungers. A kind of flyover state version of Emil Jannings in the Blue Angel, he's realized too late that his hot young trophy wife is a "tramp" on whom he's flitted away his ranch and life's savings to buy expensive gifts and dance club bar tabs to no avail other than staving off the inevitable. Their stay at the falls is supposed to heal their rift but she's 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 mortal male who gets sucked into the rushing deadly flow of Marilyn's hot voodoo and has no choice but go over the side and and plummet 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. She'd leave him broke and broken-hearted, much the worse for having ever gotten involved since now he could never enjoy "mere life" without her luminous allure in his private constellation.

And yet they all 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 like a cardboard clone shaped by the average 50s TV commercial. Surely 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 (they're the Brando and Simmons to Monroe and Adam's Sinatra and Blaine), 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 (it's a great white noise machine of a film). The quiet emptiness of the town in contrast to the mad rush of the falls creates a sense of contemplation (when I was there, with a Monroe-level gorgeous Italian-American girlfriend after graduation (I wasn't the Loomis yet, that came later, when we moved to Seattle together), it was similarly deserted, though everything was open --eerie and wonderful). You can imagine Siddhartha ending up working as a motel manager around there, 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 américain 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. You'll be as glad to have access to the beauty of Monroe and the falls as you are grateful in the end to be dry, home and in love with a nice safe mortal.

(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.



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