Niagara (Blu-ray Review)2 Sep, 2013 By: Mike Clark
Stars Marilyn Monroe, Joseph Cotten, Jean Peters, Casey Adams.
Whenever I think of Technicolor noir from the Golden Age (admittedly, a rarefied genre if there ever was one), I think of Niagara first and probably Leave Her to Heaven second, though I suppose one can argue that the latter isn’t the full-fledged real deal. But Niagara definitely has most of the preferred elements with black-and-white excepted: premeditated murderous intentions; a bombshell wife who’s fooling around; and a noir-ish kind of backdrop song (“Kiss”) that sounds a lot more noir-ish in the rendition heard here than the Dean Martin take I have on a Bear Family box of Dino’s Capitol recordings. That the movie’s Mrs. Frisky happens to be played by Marilyn Monroe — who in one scene strongly suggests that her character is naked in bed — doesn’t hurt.
Niagara came out first in the year of 20th Century Fox’s big push for MM in headlining marquee roles; a February release, it was followed by Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (August) and How To Marry a Millionaire (November). The latter two, of course, showcase the actress’s prodigious but once underrated comedic talents, whereas Niagara only relies on the kind of borderline trashy glamour befitting a noir prototype. But that’s OK because Monroe more than fills the bill in a movie where co-star Joseph Cotten takes acting honors. And as many times as I’ve seen this, dating back to its network premiere on NBC’s “Saturday Night at the Movies” in the early ’60s, I had forgotten how good Cotten is here — a sympathetic portrayal of a depressive sort who’s his own worst enemy in flying off the handle but really isn’t that bad a guy, except that trouble seems to follow him around.
You could easily get two more movies about the courtship rituals of the yarn’s plot-central couples: Monroe-Cotton plus Jean Peters and Casey Adams as marrieds on a belated honeymoon (Adams has brought along some books). Their paths cross over a mess-up involving their Niagara Falls motel reservations — and just as with Monroe-Cotten, Peters seems like an awful lot of woman for her, in this case, rather effeminate husband (when I grew up watching this movie, I always had bigger adolescent hots for Peters here than for Monroe). Adams, who later acted under real name Max Showalter, had trouble being convincing in conventionally domestic settings, and if you’ve ever seen him playing Ward Cleaver in the pilot for "Leave It to Beaver" (available on a series boxed set that’s among my most prized possessions), you can see that he would have been a bust in a role that Hugh Beaumont practically turned into a deity. On the other hand, Adams (by then back to Showalter) was bulls-eye in Lord Love a Duck playing teen bombshell Tuesday Weld’s father, one with an implied incestuous yen.
The movie, certainly no fool, is shrewdly full of what used to be called “scenic values” — which means that Peters accidentally discovers what Monroe is up to while touring the Falls in all their three-strip glory. In a general way, things play out as you’d expect on a showmanship level — though no matter how many times I’ve seen it, the finale (which does involve getting your boat somehow trapped in waters that are the stuff of nightmares) remains a grabber. Let’s face it: You don’t call a melodrama Niagara if the finale is going to involve doing cannonballs off your bungalow’s dock. And by the way, a good friend of mine who once labored on one of the local newspapers in the upstate New York area told me that every few years, you could depend on a look-back article celebrating that time long ago when Marilyn, Joe (no, not that Joe), Jean and director Henry Hathaway showed up in the neighborhood to shoot a major studio release.
Hathaway directs efficiently as he did whenever he was on his A-game. Despite rarely moving his camera — something Dennis Hopper once noted on a “Later With Bob Costas” episode — Hathaway’s long career sported a lot of mid-level “good” movies (Lives of a Bengal Lancer to True Grit) to go along with some indifferent clunkers. Niagara is among the first titles that comes to my mind whenever his name comes up, and of the Fox Monroe titles released on Blu-ray in the past couple years, this is one is almost on the level of Blondes (the standout of the pack and one of the greatest-looking hi-def discs I’ve seen to date). The great Joe MacDonald shot Niagara, and he really gets a showcase — be it the daytime rainbow over the Falls early in the picture, or the sun sneaking through the shades in MM’s room or the classic and sometimes excerpted bit where Monroe, in a notable pink dress, puts on “Kiss” at a memorably staged outdoor dance at night to drive her husband bonkers. Which she does.