There are two main reasons to see Niagara. The first is the fact that Marilyn Monroe is in it, and the second is that, early on, Monroe saunters across the screen in a tight pink dress, on her way to a party. She brings something to the party, too: an LP that has her favorite slow song on it. In addition to the little pink dress, she wears high heels and her lips are coated with a blazing red matte lipstick, lipstick that sharply contrasts with her glossy blond hair. The dress gets the party-goers’ attention, and the attention of anyone who’s watching the movie. The rest of the movie is a dud, but, wow, that’s some dress.
Niagara (1953; dir., Henry Hathaway) blends suspense with melodrama. It’s set on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls and revolves around four characters. Ray and Polly Cutler (Max Showalter and Jean Peters) are a young couple who travel to Niagara Falls for a long-postponed honeymoon. Staying at a resort that features spectacular views of the cascading water, they meet Rose Loomis (Monroe), and Rose’s unstable husband, George (Joseph Cotton). Alas, Polly’s hopes for a relaxing, sensual honeymoon recede as she finds herself embroiled in the Loomis’ marital dramas and murder schemes.
Poor Polly. She sees Rose kissing a stranger. Waking from sleep, she sees a ghostly George walking down a hallway toward her. Almost every time she goes down to Niagara Falls, something bad seems to happen to her. She tries to tell Ray about what’s going on, but he doesn’t believe her. Worse, in the film’s culminating scenes, she ends up on a runaway boat, her life in danger.
Polly is push-pull, wanting the Loomis’ drama and then turning away from it in a hush-hush/hysteria style. Tormented George acts out impulses that Polly might feel. The Cutler’s relationship is filled with the unspoken. It has the artificial, wound-up feel so typical of marital relationships depicted in ’40s and ’50s melodramas. Ray is high-volume, gung-ho, eager to put in his hours at the office and to become a top-notch corporate guy. He’s a Technicolor caricature, a man who’s never had a seditious or metaphysical thought in his life. For Ray, it’s all about suits and alcohol, lounge music and white picket fences. It’s Polly’s job to be a good little wife and help him stay on the fast track to success. Trouble is, she’s Ray’s alter ego, a complicated woman who attracts complication.
Fortunately, there’s a movie star on the premises, and she’s the sole point of seeing Niagara anyway. Marilyn Monroe remains a screen presence of the highest caliber, profoundly erotic and charismatic. In some ways, then, the fact that she’s in a movie should be enough. Plot, dialogue, and character development shouldn’t matter as much as the fact that for an hour and a half a moviegoer can watch Monroe.
So why does it matter in Niagara? Because the film never matches Monroe’s star quality. The great figure, the breathy voice, the shiny blond hair, the mysterious eyes: they’re all-systems-go here, but out of sync with Niagara‘s mediocre plot. Content and screen presence don’t mesh. Won’t something amazing happen soon? Won’t Monroe be able to rescue the film? These questions keep us going with the movie for thirty minutes and then an hour and then an hour and a half, but the answer to both questions is, finally, no.
The scenery is decently shot, and there’s a great sequence with bells toward the end, but this is one of those movies that uses its setting as something of a gimmick. The movie feels like a documentary about Niagara Falls spliced with scenes of melodrama from Perry Mason. Monroe did better with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Some Like It Hot, and she’s best when seen in her best. After you seen her in those films, it’s Paris and Miami for which you’ll be booking plane tickets, not Niagara Falls.