Steam Heat: Niagara (1953)
In honor of Valentine's Day, this month we’re examining notoriously sexy films from various decades. Adam and Samantha watched Niagara featuring sex-symbol Marilyn Monroe.
ADAM: The Cutlers (Jean Peters and Max Showalter), a wholesome American married couple, arrive in Niagara Falls for a delayed honeymoon. Upon arrival they find something more impressive and deadly than a 180-foot waterfall, namely Rose Loomis (Marilyn Monroe) and her brooding husband George (Joseph Cotten).
SAMANTHA: Showalter plays the king goober, a perfect contrast to Cotten's brooding, aggressive type. He goes around drinking Cokes, grinning like an idiot and making corny jokes and obvious comments like, "Your husband doesn't seem to like music," after Loomis smashes his wife's record. The Cutlers hail from Toledo, (Peters really was Ohio-born, coming from Canton) and I get the impression that their lack of sophistication is a comment on Ohioans, and I resent the implication.
A: I’m unashamedly provincial, so I have no problem with the stereotype. Showalter does seem like he stepped out of a sitcom. On the other hand, Joseph Cotten reaches deep into his bag of tricks to make himself has grotesque as possible while still garnering sympathy. Clammy with sweat and with a slight kink to his spine, he appears like he has an overwound mainspring, ready to bust from tension at any moment. Traces of his breakdown seep outward as he smashes a record that displeases him and pitches his model car out of frustration. Despite these tantrums, or maybe because of them, that moment when he’s alone with Jean Peters in his motel room and he flicks the lights off to reveal the illuminated Falls achieves a strange intimacy. This is a man who doesn’t just look at the Falls as a pretty spectacle but sees the awesome power and uncaring cruelty of nature. In contrast to her dull husband, who cares more about the breakfast cereal company he works for than his wife, Cotten has a troubled soul and thus a psychic connection is made. For this scene, the filmmakers had undoubtedly studied Cotten’s spellbinding monologue in Shadow of a Doubt where he unburdens himself to his niece (“How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world as a foul sty?”).
S: Very early in my classic movie days, I got a book called Collector's Compass: Movie Collectibles. This is where I first learned about Cinevent. It talks a great deal about movie paper, and one of the examples of a high ticket item is a one sheet from this film. Marilyn is reclining and the falls wash over her body and down the poster. It is a memorable image and sums up the two reasons to watch this movie: Marilyn and the falls. There is also a story about an immaculate half sheet which was once owned by Jim Morrison of The Doors, an example of one sex symbol admiring another.
A: It’s effective Hitchcockian marketing: a ravishing blonde and a familiar landmark. Now I must divulge some base thoughts. Marilyn is captivating and her ruby-red lipstick (in glorious Technicolor, no less) has a way of scrambling any rational thought.
S: I think there are two ways of watching this movie. First is as a Marilyn Monroe vehicle, which is how I saw it for the first time years ago. If you approach it this way, you'll be dazzled by her and waiting for her to reappear in the scenes where she is absent. The rest will pale in comparison. Peters' character tells Cotton, "She's a pretty girl. Why hide it?" I found that to be a colossal understatement. I mean, she manages to make a dress that falls below the knees one of the sexiest costumes of the film. The second approach is the way I came to it this time around, watching for the story and not just to see one actor. It is a good movie overall, not just because of Marilyn, but her scenes are so electrifying, it takes a bit of time to come down from the sugar high to get back into the plot.
A: I think Jean Peters deserves more attention. I’ll just point out that scene of her lathering herself with lotion while wearing a blue and red two-piece bathing suit and sunglasses…
S: She is the girl next door to Marilyn's sex bomb. Her character is intelligent and perceptive and relatable. She gets to wear some really adorable outfits too. It is a wonder how her goober husband managed to wind up with such a catch.
Worth mentioning are Mr. Cutler's boss and his wife. They're played by Don Wilson of Jack Benny Show fame and Lurene Tuttle who had a prolific career in Old Time Radio on shows like Hollywood Hotel, The Great Gildersleeve and The Adventures of Sam Spade.
A: Niagara was penned by a trio of writers, Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch, and Richard Breen, who previously collaborated on a pair of sophisticated matrimonial comedies, The Mating Season and The Model and the Marriage Broker. Maybe it’s a rather skewed angle to view things from, but I look at Niagara as the dark conclusion of a trilogy exploring the foibles of marriage. In an interview with Joel Greenberg, Reisch described how Brackett (who also served as producer) suggested making a movie taking place at the famous honeymoon spot. Reisch’s first impulse, tellingly, was to make this one about murder. Linking Niagara to the comparatively cozy comedies that preceded it isn’t just some provocation. The comedies do have a prickly edge. The Mating Season foretells darker things to come in a scene where Thelma Ritter, out of place at a hoity toity cocktail party, matter-of-factly discusses the time a man ordered a weenie from her hamburger stand while holding a briefcase containing the remains of his wife.
S: I love the motif of the bells. Music is one of those things for me, like scent, that always conjures up memories, so I love when it is used to amplify something in a movie. You can hear the bells playing early in the film, though you don't know their significance until later. The Rainbow Tower is still located on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls and contains a carillon that plays three times each day.
A: The carillon is both beautiful and ominous. It’s one of the most memorable aspects of the movie. Every little detail in this movie appeals to my fetishistic attachment to mid-century Western culture. The locale is the convergence of nature’s splendor and commercialism’s crassness, an awe-inspiring place that feels haunted by every visitor’s hopes and disappointments. Having visited twice, the sights, sounds, and sprays of Niagara rushed back like I was looking at some fantastical communal photo album. In the ringing carillon, suitcase record player (I spent an inordinate amount of time determining that it’s a Symphonic brand), rangefinder camera (an Argus C3, without a doubt), spinning postcard display racks, Lucky Strikes, little bottles of Coke, and Hawaiian shirts, I see all the little things that have made the relentless procession of days tolerable. The film works as a travelogue of a time and a place. I just learned that Post Cereals really does have a plant in Niagara Falls (which opened in 1904) where they do indeed make Shredded Wheat. The more you know!
S: I visited Niagara Falls briefly on my way home from Cinefest in 2015. The falls had just begun to melt after having been frozen solid, and it was bitterly, painfully cold. I stayed long enough to get a few pictures, then rushed back to my car so I could turn the heat up to full blast. After seeing this movie, and having flashes to other scenes in pop culture where couples get married (The Office) or honeymoon (The Crowd) at the falls, I had a strong urge to get a passport and plan a family vacation there.
A: By sheer coincidence, I just happened upon an episode of Green Acres where the Ziffels were heading to Niagara Falls on their second honeymoon. There are very few perfect thrillers. It’s a tightrope walk to create an intriguing scenario, flesh it out with good characters and dialogue, and maintain suspense until the finale. Niagara nearly achieves this perfection but falters a bit in the final act, which fails to maintain excitement. It’s also marred by one goofy special effect. But what I remembered most about the movie was vividly brought back to me on this viewing—the gloominess of Cotten’s character, the tightness of Marilyn’s dresses, the masterful direction of the film’s key murder sequence, and the photography of the Falls. I give it four stars.
S: It certainly held up for me, but the ending is disappointing. The film seems to trail off a bit. 3 stars.