Niagra (1953): Hathway’s Noir Thriller in Color, Starring Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotten

Henry Hathaway’s Niagra is a film noir in color, a tale of an adulterous woman named Rose, played by Marilyn Monroe (at her most sensual) and her insanely jealous husband, George Loomis (Joseph Cotten).

Monroe was given top billing in Niagara, a popular movie that was released in the best year of her career, having made two other hits: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, with Jane Russell, and How to Marry a Millionaire, with Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall.

The plot, co-written by Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch, and Richard Breen, contrasts two couples: The straight-laced happy honeymooners Polly (Jean Peters) and Ray Cutler (Casey Adams) and the more mature, cynical and unhappily-wed Rose and George Loomis. The foursome meet at a small resort, set against the always magnificent, often stormy, and occasionally ominous sight of the Niagara Falls.

When their promised cottage is still occupied by the Loomises, the Cutlers temporarily take another cabin. For the next two days, the lives of the two couples are bound together for a variety of reasons.

Polly discovers that Rose is having an affair and that George, though emotionally unstable, has good reason for his jealous bursts of rage. George suspects that Rose flaunts her sexuality to make him act crazy in front of witnesses. Indeed, Rose plans for her lover Patrick (Richard Allan) to kill George and make it look like suicide, or better a disappearance.

Things go wrong, and instead, George kills Patrick. When George returns to kill Rose, he finds Polly in her place. Since she had been sympathetic to him, George asks Polly not to tell anyone that he is alive so he can disappear quietly. But, realizing that he wants to kill Rose, Polly informs the police.

George begins stalking Rose, who’s desperately trying to leave town. The police are searching for both of them, and finally George and Polly are on a boat heading for the precipice.

Niagara Falls, one of the most favorite honeymoon spots in the 1950s, serves as an ironic metaphor for the destructive power of out-of-control carnal and murderous obsessions. The color cinematography is deliberately lurid, heightening the tension inherent in the story, and Walsh makes the most of the unique locations.

Hathaway’s direction is reliably taut, servicing (but not more) the thinly plotted picture, which is utterly predictable.

As director, he coaxes strong performances from Cotten as the obsessive, insanely jealous older hubby, and Monroe as the younger and neurotic wife, who has just been released from a mental institution.

The camera caresses and lingers on Monroe’s shapely figure, her sensuous lips (wearing hot red lipstick even when she wakes up in the morning!), her slip-clad figure and deep cleavage (showing the star sans bras).  Above all, the focus is on Monroe’s derrière, with the camera following her as she wiggles her hips down the street to a secret rendezvous with her dark and handsome lover (Richard Allan).

The very blond Monroe is dressed in voluptuously seductive pink and red dresses, which contrast her with the more conventionally bourgeois Jean Peters, who’s often in white shirt and blue slacks with her brown hair pulled back.

Shot in “three-strip” Technicolor, Niagra became one of the last films at Fox in that format, as a few months later Fox began converting to CinemaScope.

Marilyn Monroe as Rose Loomis
Joseph Cotten as George Loomis
Jean Peters as Polly Cutler
Casey Adams as Ray Cutler
Denis O’Dea as Inspector Sharkey
Richard Allan as Patrick