The Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotten Melee in Niagara

Marilyn Monroe sets up her suckers, er, friends. Image: So It Goes

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.

Joseph Cotten in marital torment. Image: IMDB

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.

Monroe is anxious to get outta Dodge. Image: NoNaMd

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.



  1. It’s ridiculous but I’ve never seen Niagara. It has to be next up. I think I probably avoided it in earlier years because of not being hugely fond of Monroe. But then that never stopped me watching and enjoying Some Like it Hot. Your review has made me desperate to see it so thank you, Ruth!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this one — so long that I would have said it was Cotten’s character plotting to kill Monroe’s, not vice versa (oops) — so now I’ll have to rewatch it. Fortunately, it’s scheduled on TCM on August 1st.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. It’s been ages since I saw this movie. You’re review has me wanting to see it again. Thanks, Ruth! 🙂 And thanks Erin for mentioning that it’ll be on TCM! Awesome! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Somewhere out there is an alternate universe where Marilyn never became a superstar sex goddess, but a respectable, B-level noir actress. She would’ve done plenty of television in the 60s. Most of all, she’d still be alive.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. A great account of a noir that I like a lot, though it’s one that often seems to be forgotten — perhaps, as you say, because Hathaway is underestimated in general. Many thanks for your insightful reminder.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. What funny timing – I just started Blonde by Joyce Carol Oats. Marilyn is a bit later than my Hollywood period, but she is just so fascinating, and I’m definitely going to try to track this movie down!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Awaah Thanks for linking my review! Another great review of such a great film! By the way other readers- View this film Aug 1 2017 as part of Marilyn’s day on summer under the stars!

    Liked by 3 people

  8. “Slick and stylish” indeed. Yet for all its surface gloss, Niagara truly gives us a look at raw emotion that is probably best ignored for the natural splendor of the Falls. Truly, an excellent choice for the blogathon and well done, as always. You have a way of narrowing in on the core of a film.

    I go back and forth on Hathaway; do I prefer his noirish thrillers or his character-driven westerns? As a movie fan, I should just be happy he was so expert at what he put his hand to.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Niagara was one of the first Marilyn films I ever saw and I just adored her in it. I still do. She definitely held her own against Joseph Cotten.

    The theme of marriage is really fascinating in this movie. Monroe and Cotten’s marriage is obviously the main focus, but I find the marriage of Peters and Showalter to be kind of interesting too. There’s just something so cheesy and off-putting about it. They are like the ideal 1950’s couple, full of youth and a sort of purity, which can make them seem dull. I swear, every time I watch this flick, I find myself re-thinking these characters.

    Liked by 2 people

    • (Ack! Accidentally pressed send on my smartphone…)

      As for the Peters-Showalter couple, I see what you’re saying. I like them in this movie because – and I know this sounds ridiculous – I like not having to worry about them, and I like not knowing too much about their relationship. But you touch on an interesting point: How would Monroe-Cotten debacle affect their relationship after the movie ends?


  10. Niagara is such a good movie! I agree that it has a Hitchcockian style, and there is a list of reasons why everyone should watch it. After all, who imagined that Sugar the singer would plot to kill Uncle Charlie?
    Thanks for the kind comment! – And I hope you get the chance to watch Julie.

    Liked by 4 people

  11. Wanna sing your praises here Ruth. What a wonderful job you did on “NIAGARA.” ( P.S. It’s one of my favorite films!! )

    I just IMDB’d Henry Hathaway’s filmography and I see I know him better than I thought I did. He was all over the map, genre~wise, and I think he pretty much mastered the lot of them.

    I want to feel sorry for Joseph Cotten, and I basically do ( poor schlemiel! )…but when you’re holding on to the back of the bus, getting your knees all scraped up on cobblestone, screaming to the bus driver to STOP the bus, do you continue to hold on when he looks at you through the rear view mirror and BEARS DOWN ON the gas…or do YOU decide to let go once you’re scraped down to your knee joints? I DO feel sorry for him ‘cuz that could be anybody, holding on to someone who doesn’t want them. But can you blame him?

    Whew…Marilyn. My God, Marilyn…coming out in that chartreuse dress with her vinyl record for these teenagers to play. Look at the screen cap of that moment. I need that blown up on my wall. The kids look at her like she’s something they’ve never seen before in their lives. ( And she is! ) “NIAGARA” played at one of the TCM Film Festivals. I was rather late for the screening, and heard the guest introducing the film saying 20th Century was determined NOT to have Marilyn ever play a villain again. They felt it hurt her brand. ( Ha! It might’ve extended her career, but that’s for soothsayers to decide. )

    This movie reminds me of that Brian Donlevy~Ella Raines~Helen Walker film called “IMPACT.” Do you know the film, Ruth. If you know the film…you’ll know what I mean. I like Jean Peters and Max Showalter’s average American white~bread vanilla couple. Yes, as you say Ruth, we don’t have to worry about them, and also they offer the bland contrast to the fireworks of Marilyn and Joey C. ( I never knew he was a sheep farmer. I thought he was a shell~shocked vet. ) Jean Peters is a beautiful brunette, and they worked hard to tamp down Peters’ sultry~ness with ponytail and peddle pushers. But she IS gorgeous ( “PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET” ~ need I say more?? )

    The blessing and curse of hosting a blogathon is all the reading I have to do to make sure I acknowledge all the contributors. The plus is that I’m reading very good posts about, as you say: “…the painful, tortuous death of a marriage.” Thanks for joining in my blogathon. I’ll go as far as saying it ain’t a blogathon if Silver Screenings ain’t in it.

    Now…I should get ready for the barbecue with Peters and Showalter…when I really just wanna watch Marilyn come outta that cabin with her record. Who needs a CD player!!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Dear Theresa,
      You are an amazing blogathon host. I’ve seen the encouraging remarks you’ve been leaving on participants’ sites, making all of us feel like Smarty Pants. Thank you.

      Random thoughts:
      1) Haven’t seen “Impact”, but I suspect I’m missing out on something terrific. I’ve added it to my recommended list (which I keep on my cell phone, like a true movie nerd).
      2) Joseph Cotten: The poor slob. I feel sad for him, but that is tempered with no small amount of fear. Even though Jean Peters brings out his rational side, he gives the impression of being capable of ANYTHING. However, Cotten never lets this character become an all-out monster.
      3) That dress!! I laughed when you said those teenagers stared at Marilyn M. like she was something they’d never seen before. So true!
      4) I wish Monroe had done another film s a femme fatale. She’s utterly fab in comedies, but she’s also capable of having a dangerous edge, like she does in this film.
      5) I’m coming with you to the Peters/Showalter BBQ… 😉


  12. Thanks for your terrific piece on an underappreciated noir. I like Niagara better every time I see it. It’s a perfect double feature with Leave Her to Heaven—the Technicolor noirs. I particularly like your focus on the “anatomy of a dying marriage” piece, which tends to get lost in all the nefarious doings, and your focus on the normal couple, Peters / Showalter, for contrast. It really is too bad the studio wouldn’t let MM play more bad girls, and you’re right, had she lived longer, having done more villains would have given her a possible way to keep working when she aged out of being a sex symbol. She’s really terrific in this; I think it’s one of her best performances. She’s also good in Don’t Bother to Knock where she’s not evil but pitifully sick (and dangerous). I knew Hathaway by name but never thought about him much till I fell in love with his 1935 Peter Ibbetson, which really shows his range. He had a lot more going for him than he-man westerns. Niagara is a terrific pick for this matricidal blogathon!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks for the heads up re: Peter Ibbetson. If Hathaway is directing, I know it’ll be good.

      Ah yes! Niagara would be a perfect double-header with Leave Her to Heaven. Both Gene Tierney and Marilyn M are fab Technicolor femmes fatale, no?


  13. Such a gorgeous setting for such dark goings on. It’s always difficult, at least for me, to know who to side with in this one. Both Monroe and Cotten have been kicked around by life a bit, she’s stuck with him and he with her, and Peters is, yes, the innocent Hitchcockian bystander. Really nice write up of an emotionally complex Noir and great choice for this blogathon.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Agreed. It’s hard to pick a side in this film. At first, my sympathies are with Joseph Cotten, but as the story progresses, I’m cheering for Marilyn Monroe. I guess that shows how filmmakers were able to portray more complex characters.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. I saw 20th fox filming Niagra on location in 1952 .We drove from St Catherine’s Ontario. Marilyn Monroe was stunning and in her prime. I was surprised how fragile and agile she was .She signed my sisters autograph book in red fountain pen.Hard to believe 65 years ago.

    Liked by 3 people

    • That is awesome! It’s interesting to hear how fragile she was. When I see actors in movies, I tend to forget how small they might really be.

      How did the autograph signing work? Did the crew set aside a certain time for folks to meet her & get autographs?


  15. That walk! That walk she had! The one from the cabin that Peters stares at too! I think of this movie and realize that I can’t walk and oh, how I’d love to walk like that!! LOL!! (Seriously though! 😁) Fine, dark movie, too.

    Liked by 1 person

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