It's very easy to see that, in the early 1950s, 20th Century Fox didn't really have much of a clue about what to do with Marilyn Monroe. Eventually, they decided to present her as a blonde bimbo with a childlike streak of vulnerability but that didn't really stick until a few years down the line. In 1952 she was already hot stuff for the advertising department but otherwise she was a star in search of an image. Niagara, apart from being a pretty good suspense thriller, is fascinating as the only film to suggest what a fantastic femme fatale Monroe might have been in different circumstances.
The plot is classic melodrama territory of the period. Monroe plays Rose Loomis, wife of George (Cotten) a mentally unbalanced Korean War veteran. Rose, a walking adultery suit, is conducting an affair and has concoted, along with her - frankly rather bland - lover, a plan to get rid of George during a trip to Niagara Falls. But her plans are complicated by two factors. Firstly, the arrival of a the Cutlers, a couple visiting Niagara on a delayed honeymoon who are meant to be taking over the room which George and Rose have failed to vacate. Secondly, George's instability means that any plan is inevitably affected by his regular mood-swings. An attempted murder on the Falls leaves the wrong man dead and Rose realises that she is going to have to move pretty fast if she is going to evade the reprisals of her vengeful partner. Meanwhile, Polly Cutler, instinctively suspicious, becomes even more so when she wakes up to find George Loomis standing in the next room. The police become involved, Rose gets ever more paranoid and - what's worse - Joe Cutler's boss turns up to take him for a spot of fishing.
This is an enjoyable suspense movie which veteran director Henry Hathaway handles with immense skill. A director who tended to be very competent but rarely inspired, Hathaway, comfortably installed at Fox in the late 40s/early 50s, had a real talent for taking pulp material and bringing out the best in it - take a look at this film, Kiss Of Death, The House On 92nd Street and The Sons Of Katie Elder for a masterclass in how the familiar can be brought to life by a professional talent working with what he knows. A particular strength of his was location work and Niagara looks simply stunning. Although it's easy to spot the bits filmed in Canada and the bits finished on the Fox backlot, the Technicolor photography is simply spectacular - it's like a brilliantly shot travelogue with added meat. Joe McDonald, one of the first great Cinemascope talents working here in 4:3, creates an intensely heightened realism that is almost abstract, especially in the opening sequence as Cotten walks beneath the falls and through a rainbow. The images often have a vitality that the narrative lacks, often the case in this sort of thing - and partially the case for the greatest of all romantic melodramas, Hitchcock's Vertigo. This was a great era for Technicolor and this film is a great advertisment for it.
But what makes it fascinating is the treatment of Monroe. There seem to be two schools of thought about this. The first, shared by such disparate sources as Halliwell's and Time Out, is that she is miscast and that Fox didn't understand that her real talent was for comedy and light drama. The second, most memorably expressed by Pauline Kael, is that this was the only film to exploit "the mean, unsavoury potential of Monroe's cuddly, infantile perversity". I tend towards the latter position. From her first scene, sitting in bed planning whatever carnal misdeeds could be performed today, she exudes predatory sexuality and she is absolutely riveting. At one point, George breaks down and rants about what a "tramp" she is and he's absolutely right, but it's hard not to wonder what on earth he hoped for when he married her. It's a horribly sexist conception I know but Monroe is such fun to watch that you don't really care about anyone else. She pulls off some impossible scenes with such elan that all the controversy about how well she could really act seems irrelevant. She's got a limited range as an actress but here she is every inch the star. When she comes out of her cabin and goes to put a record on, everybody stops and stares at her and, let's face it, you would too. Then she begins singing along and her rather weak voice sounds sensual and almost beautiful. You can certainly understand why George comes storming out of the cabin, snatches the record off the turntable and smashes it. This isn't the usual collection of dumb blonde cliches and silly innuendo, it's a real role and Monroe runs with it.
Battling against the twin glories of Monroe and Niagara, the other actors put up a mixed showing. Jean Peters, in the deadly role of the suspicious Polly, isn't at all bad and at least doesn't turn into a tedious drag on the plot like some actresses would have done. At one point it looks like Casey Adams, as Joe Cutler, might get the chance for some intimate stuff with Monroe but instead he confines himself to looking like a quarterback still on the field after everyone else has gone home. As for Joseph Cotten, he's a good actor but he really is miscast here and he obviously knows it. Hathaway wanted James Mason - always a good choice for unbalanced types - and he directs Cotten as if he was really was Mason. It doesn't work, Cotten looks embarrassed and not even a two day shadow and a pint of sweat can make him look convincing. This hobbles the plot and when Cotten is chasing Monroe up the famous belltower the effect is more ludicrous than frightening. For Cotten as a really convincing villain, check out his charmingly sinister Uncle Charlie in Hitchcock's Shadow of A Doubt.
The symbolic importance of the Falls is, needless to say, hammered home in the film - George compares it to passionate love saying "Nothing in the world can stop you going over the edge." This is totally unnecessary, since the images have already indicated this quite clearly enough. But Hathaway keeps the symbolism under control and delivers an efficient thriller at a trim 85 minutes. It's a fine example of the enjoyable genre movies which the studio system was particularly good at producing during the fifties and it's certainly essential viewing for Marilyn fans.
This is another of the discs from the Fox Marilyn Monroe Collection box. It matches the others for technical quality but also reflects the lack of extra materials featured on most of the DVDs in the collection.
The film was in fairly poor condition before restoration work was undertaken and, as with the other discs, the results are astounding. The Technicolor photography comes up gleaming like new and the level of detail is marvellous. No grain or artifacting problems and a sharp picture that is not over-enhanced. It's a fullframe transfer of a film made the year before the Academy ratio was dismissed by much of Hollywood as "postage stamp".
The soundtrack is a faithful and effective recreation of the original mono track. It's clear and well balanced with clear dialogue and strong sound effects.
There are three extras on the DVD. Firstly, the hilarious trailer which is in black and white for some reason. This is a wonderful period piece of hysterical showmanship - "A raging torrent of emotion even nature can't control", "Marilyn Monroe IS the tantalising temptress whose KISSES fired mens' souls... She lured men on and on to their eternal destruction", "Makes the screen thunder with unparalleled suspense". Naturally placing most of the attention on Monroe, it assures us that "NIAGARA and MONROE" are "The two most electrifying sights in the world".
There is a brief restoration featurette demonstrating the work done on the film to restore it to its original condition and an 18 picture Stills Gallery which concentrates on Monroe's publicity shots.
There are 24 chapter stops and static menus.
An entertaining suspense thriller is given added piquancy by the demonstration of how Monroe's image might have developed in a different direction. The DVD is limited in its extra features but offers a superb picture that is unlikely to disappoint viewers.