Niagara has some noir-ish elements to it—femme fatale wife Marilyn Monroe stepping out on war veteran husband Joseph Cotten—but it’s not about the darkness, it’s about the light. And its location shooting. Niagara takes full advantage of the falls, not just for scenery but for multiple story elements (we find out Monroe’s stepping out because she heads to the falls to meet up with her much younger, prettier, and presumably not PTSD-suffering lover, Richard Allan). Director Hathaway and cinematographer Joseph MacDonald basically do an exceptionally good commercial for the possibilities of Technicolor (and location shooting). Hathaway and MacDonald show it can do noir, it can do suspense, it can do action, it can do drama, it can ogle Monroe. The first act of the film, in addition to introducing the cast and setup, is all about ogling Monroe. Sometimes as a plot point—when Monroe’s turning heads—other times just because. The film also comes up with a really creative way for her to get to do a song, like they want to remind everyone she sings too.
The film opens with Cotten stumbling back to their motel in the early morning, narrating about existence. There’s no further narration in the film and it just sets up Cotten’s character for when he disappears for a spell to introduce the film’s protagonist, Jean Peters, which happens after he gets home to Monroe and passes out. The film’s got a fantastic screenplay (from producer Charles Brackett, Walter Resich, and Richard L. Breen), both in terms of plotting and dialogue. Everything contributes to the character development and the reveals until it’s time for the action finale to take over. Great action finale. Oh, and also the obvious but Code acceptable sexuality of the characters.
Anyway, Peters and her husband Max Showalter are on a delayed honeymoon. Showalter works for a breakfast cereal company in marketing and is all about climbing the corporate ladder. Showalter’s annoying as hell and not very good, which almost doesn’t matter as part of the film hinges on him dismissing Peters’s concerns about neighbors Cotten and Monroe (to the point he stops cop Denis O’Dea from interviewing Peters about something important because Showalter’s done hearing about it); unfortunately he never learns from the experience of the film’s events, presumably consigning Peters to living under his dimwitted wanna-be alpha male nonsense for the rest of her life. If Showalter were good or the part was self-aware, Niagara might be a lot better.
But it’s still really good. Peters is a great protagonist, even if she’s rarely the lead—after Monroe’s introduction at the beginning, things shift to Peters and Showalter, then back to Cotten, then Monroe, then Cotten, then Monroe. The third act is a little more even but it’s so action-packed, there’s not much for Peters to do. She shows empathy for Cotten in the first act, getting involved in he and Monroe’s unhealthy—but not initially clear how unhealthy—relationship so even though she’s the protagonist, it’s all about her perspective on them. As for her and Showalter and their delayed honeymoon, outside him being a dipshit in general, he doesn’t show any interest in anything until he gets to suck up to a local Shredded Wheat vice president, a perfectly obnoxious Don Wilson. Wilson and wife Lurene Tuttle are another of Niagara’s small successes, both in terms of writing and performance. They’re great accessories for Peters and Showalter as Peters comes to understand the thriller she’s found herself in.
Lots of gorgeous filmmaking. Hathaway’s got a great feel for the locations, both the town and the falls; he, MacDonald, editor Barbara McLean, and composer Sol Kaplan do fantastic work. McLean’s cutting gets more impressive than the still wondrous photography in the second half, as the thriller aspect replaces the Monroe ogling.
Monroe’s really good, Peters is really good, Cotten’s real, real good. They more than make up for Showalter being, at best, wishy-washy. O’Dea’s fine as the cop. Allan’s effective as the beefcake boy toy. Russell Collins is the motel owner and he’s very distinctive. He’s fine—he doesn’t have much to do—but Hathaway treats him like there’s always something more to his story. It provides some nice texture.
Niagara only runs ninety minutes and every one of them is effectively used. It’s a very substantial ninety minutes. The only thing wrong in it is Showalter, for multiple reasons, but the film successfully works around him (at one point it feels like everyone’s just ignoring him). It’s an excellent showcase for its leads, the filmmakers, and the Technicolor process.