Wednesday, February 8, 2012


There's something poignant about a movie that sees fit to acknowledge the death of its own aesthetic. Such is the case with Niagara, the frothy 1953 Technicolor noir not so much directed as assembled by Henry Hathaway. Assembled, literally, around an icon in the form of Marilyn-just-as-she-was-becoming-Marilyn; assembled in the sense that the chief stylistic preoccupations on display -- hot, lurid colors in movement and ever-furtive window slat shadows; a simultaneous rebuke and embrace of genre -- are barely allowed to exist without her presence. She is very much the engine for these elements, the sole expressive nexus that swirls them together, giving the film so much of its visual personality. And even if Marilyn wasn't much of an actress at this point, she still slinks around the dusky crevices of this world in her bright pinks and yellows (even shifting into pure shadow at times) with every bit the force and presence of the natural wonder that provides the backdrop, while the likes of the great Joseph Cotton and Jean Peters struggle to do a damn thing with their lots, and it's very difficult to say that the movie does not belong completely to her.

And so after the sheer ludicrousness of the script has guided Monroe's character to the top of a bell tower*, and after she's been murdered by her husband in said location, we are given the relatively loaded compositions shown at the top of this post: the aesthetic spirit of our film, now lifeless, bathed in the features that constantly surrounded her, except now given a decidedly mournful appearance. Giant slat shadows within a splayed container of light that may as well be an exaggerated coffin. An outfit one might wear to a funeral. Color in the form of a bright yellow kerchief, which Monroe had absurdly held onto and flailed throughout her final doomed chase. The kind of kerchief that one could clutch in their hand as they wave goodbye to a loved one. And that's what this moment is, a movie waving goodbye to itself. Sure, there's another act left to go, with Cotton and Peters perilously trapped aboard a gasless boat drifting towards the edge of the raging falls, but the movie's style as it had been established --- having already been given a proper farewell -- all but evaporates, giving way to dingy brownish earth tones and misty, bland blues and a general blah atmosphere of predetermined redemption. This stretch may have more "action" and "closure" than anything that preceded it, but it feels at best like a forced and prolonged coda, and at worst like something stripped from some other, far less interesting film. We have already been given the real climax, and it's easy to sense that the movie agrees.

*The matter of the bell tower, along with a handful of other shared cues, has led some to ponder the possibilities of Hitchcock drawing upon Niagara for inspiration while conceiving Vertigo. I don't see much there personally, but who knows. It is more than a tad interesting to think of Hitch's masterpiece and its boundless obsession as being, in some subconscious measure, a reaction to Niagara and the frank treatment given to the murder of its blonde femme fatale, its sober formal acknowledgement of the loss and of what it means.


Jon said...

Nice work here Drew. Speaking of Vertigo, I recently watched Matarrazzo's Nobody's Children and The White Angel twinbill melodrama. The White Angel contains a potential key inspiration for the doppelganger element. Interesting stuff. I do like Niagra alot.

Drew McIntosh said...

Thanks, Jon. That's definitely interesting about the Matarrazzos, I have to admit that I've yet to jump into any of his work, need to do something about that I guess.

I'm ultimately torn on Niagara, Marilyn is a treat and it's often a great looking movie, but the inspired moments are few and far between, and it wound up feeling fairly empty to me all said and done.

Sam Juliano said...

I never bought into the VERTIGO theory either Drew. And I'd say I am in large measure on the same page with you as to this film. The shadow-laden and stylistic color cinematography by Joseph MacDonald is a treat, and of course Marilyn Monroe gives what I always thought was one of her finest performances. It's an intriguing film, and different for sure within the noir parameters, but it's hardly profound.

Anyway, marvelous work here is picture and prose.

Drew McIntosh said...

Thanks a lot, Sam. It definitely sounds like we have similar takes here.