Niagara, made in 1953, is filmed in Technicolor. There are no shadows. It’s all bright sunlight. And there is no trace of the mean streets of the big city - it all takes place at Niagara Falls! All of which would normally disqualify it from being film noir. But film noir is what it is.
A young honeymooning couple (the charming Jean Peters as Polly Cutler and the unbelievably annoying Max Showalter as her husband) arrive at their cabin at the Falls to find that the previous occupants have not yet checked out. They and the manager are met at the door by a half-dressed, rather disheveled and somewhat confused Rose Loomis (Marilyn Monroe). She begs them to just let her husband sleep. The kind-hearted Cutlers agree to take another cabin.
The mystery about the Loomises deepens. They seem a very mis-matched couple. Rose is young, very sexy and very flirtatious. George (Joseph Cotten) is middle-aged, bitter, withdrawn and bad-tempered. Trouble starts to brew at a barbecue when Rose shows up in a red dress. This is not just a red dress. This is the red dress to end all red dresses. This is the kind of red dress you wear when you expect that you’ll be wearing nothing but a smile long before the evening is out. And Marilyn fills this red dress very nicely indeed. She wears it like she’s the kind of girl who often wears dresses like this.
Pretty soon George is smashing up records and throwing things about and generally throwing the sort of tantrum you throw when you know your wife is wearing that dress for a man, but that man is not you.
Young Polly tries to befriend George. It seems he’s been in an army hospital, the sort of hospital they send combat fatigue cases to. There’s no doubt he’s suffering from combat fatigue, but you have to wonder if the combat in question has been on the battlefield or in the bedroom. And you have to wonder if maybe part of the problem is that the Loomis’s married life may be a little bit too quiet in the bedroom department, that maybe the last shots were fired there quite some time ago but that Rose is still ready, willing and able to report for duty in that area, and that if her husband can’t carry out out his duties in that area she’ll find some other man who can.
So far it looks like there are troubled waters ahead, and then George mysteriously disappears. A tearful Rose explains that he was very upset the night before, and she indicates that he may have done something foolish. There are still plenty of plot twists to go and I won’t spoil them for you.
The style of the film is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s 1950s Technicolor period, but the mood is pure film noir. There’s a femme fatale, although she’s not an entirely unsympathetic femme fatale - she’s obviously had a lot to put up with from the sort of man who back in the 50s would not have been likely to give an unhappy wife her freedom. There’s a tortured noir anti-hero, battling personal demons and being a very typical noir anti-hero - he just can’t see that he’s becoming the bad guy.
The use of the Niagara Falls locations is truly inspired. Maybe it’s not quite as clever a use of a location as Hitchcock’s more famous use of Mount Rushmore, but it’s pretty close. There are some exciting action sequences, there’s mystery and there’s suspense.
Jean Peters is very good in the main supporting role. She’s overwhelmed by the powerhouse performances from the two leads, but she still does a fine job.
Joseph Cotten does the man slowly unravelling thing exceptionally well. He never quite goes over the top. There’s always a sane part of him that knows that things are going out of control, and that just deepens the tragedy. And then there’s Marilyn Monroe. She’s quite superb. She’s frighteningly sexy, but it’s a nicely judged performance rather similar to the one she gave in the very underrated Don't Bother To Knock. She’s scary, but you want to save her.
This is a top-notch mystery thriller with a genuine film noir feel to it. Highly recommended. And it demonstrates that the Monroe mystique really was more than hype, that she really could act.