As it turns out, Niagara Falls is a perfect place for murder.
The 1953 Technicolor thriller, Niagara, shows us what a perilous place it is: craggy shorelines, thundering water, a 100-foot plunge pool beneath the falls. Yet, for all the danger there’s a fierce beauty. It’s easy to see why this area became the Honeymoon Capital of North America.
As the poem “Niagara Falls” (Anonymous, 1841) says:
Oh the lovers come a thousand miles,
They leave their home and mother;
Yet when they reach Niagara Falls
They only see each other.
Niagara introduces us to Jean Peters and Max Showalter, a young married couple on a delayed honeymoon. Showalter is an affable, upwardly-mobile chap, and Peters is his smart and capable wife (who, later on, may wish she weren’t so smart or capable). They are pleasant, easy-going folks – the kind you’d invite to a barbecue.
Even when they arrive at their Niagara Falls accommodation and discover their reserved cabin is still occupied by the previous guests, they don’t make a fuss.
But they’ll be in turmoil soon enough when they become unwittingly involved with these other guests, a married couple tangled in a self-destructive relationship.
Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotten portray the troubled couple, a tragically mismatched pair. Monroe is all Look-At-Me glamour while Cotten is, decidedly, not. He knows the clock is ticking on their relationship, and he’s desperate to forestall it. Monroe, on the other hand, cannot wait to be rid of Cotten – she has a younger, fresher man on tap.
We learn Cotten’s character used to be a successful sheep farmer before he married Monroe. Then his world slowly imploded, starting with the death of his sheep and ending with an empty bank account and a wife who can’t stand him.
His marriage to Monroe’s character has left him grey and empty, but he’s still frantic to regain her affection. He knows she’s unfaithful, and it’s eroding his mental faculties.
As for Monroe, she uses Cotten’s emotional state to show the world how Hard Done By she is. She ensures everyone sees the effort it takes to make continual excuses for him.
In one scene, Monroe joins an outdoor party near their cabin and brings a vinyl record. As her chosen song begins to play, Cotten storms out of cabin, grabs the record and smashes it. Monroe finds this amusing until she realizes the neighbours are watching. Then she acts alarmed by Cotten’s behaviour. You know, because she’s The Victim In All This, and she thinks everyone believes her.
But! We know something the film’s characters do not; namely, Monroe’s plans to kill Cotten. It would be so easy! There are a lot of places around Nigara Falls from which a person could plummet…and who’s to say if that person jumped – or was pushed?
All of this results in a tense thriller, a Technicolor film noir. But there’s an even more disturbing undercurrent here. In a place symbolizing marital bliss, we witness the painful, tortuous death of a marriage.
Niagara shows us how ugly it can get.
You may think this film sounds Hitchockian with its careful building of plot, ever-increasing tension, and surprising twists.
Even Peters, the smart and suspicious woman she is, seems like a Hitchcock heroine. For example, when she discovers Monroe in a clinch with her boyfriend, she remarks to Showalter, “Didn’t [she] say she was going shopping? Well, she sure got herself an armful of groceries.”
But Niagara isn’t a Hitchcock movie; rather, it was directed by the underrated Henry Hathaway. His is a slick, stylish film that now has a reputation for being one of the “best Hitchcock films that Hitchcock never made”.
For this reason, and a dozen others, you should see Niagara – not the least of which is its look at a failed marriage in a honeymoon paradise.
Niagara: starring Marilyn Monroe, Joseph Cotten, Jean Peters. Directed by Henry Hathaway. Written by Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch & Richard Breen. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp., 1953, Technicolor, 92 mins.