Having just returned from a trip to Niagara Falls, I was eager to revisit Henry Hathaway’s 1953 technicolor thriller starring Marilyn Monroe. Shrewd, sexy, and sensational, the expertly lensed Niagara is the most brilliantly devised star-making spectacle of Hollywood’s studio era. It has so much going for it that it can afford to be utterly predictable. The Falls are predictable, which does not make them any less exciting. And as much as I enjoy spotting old-time radio performers like the aforementioned Lurene Tuttle or Jack Benny’s jovial announcer Don Wilson, Niagara hardly requires any added attractions to make repeat viewings worth my while. More than the mere setting for a tale of adultery and revenge, the magnificent Falls are a dramatic extension of Monroe’s form and the character she portrays, as well as an obvious metaphor for the rush of desire and the flimsiness of the social fabric with which we attempt to stay it.
No one seems safe from the inexorable and devastating force of Niagara. Not even Jean Peters, the far better half of a couple of second honey-mooners so clean as to be emotionally washed up and well past passion. Spending a honeymoon by the falls is something of an endurance test. Either your love proves as strong and permanent as the scenery or the flame is doused and consumed by it. Passion, to be sure, is no requisite for marriage, which is why the falls can be seen as a substitute for it, an ersatz externalization for the unsettling influences those settling in dare not permit themselves to experience.
No matter how many showers she takes, how many times she gets sprayed by the mist, no matter how many times she slips into a new dress, Monroe’s Rose is far from spotless. She is no Lorelei Lee, either, an infantilized siren whose predatory sexuality is rendered innocuous by her apparent simplicity and her chief interest in the monetary value of her prey. According to the Code under which Hollywood operated, a lapsarian anti-heroine like Rose must go down in her own scheme to rid herself of her brooding, volatile husband (Joseph Cotten, whose character is too unsure of himself or his position to control his wife, let alone the film’s point of view).
For the gender-confused and fatalistic teenager I once was, Niagara outlined adult life as an improbable proposition, a threatening, unconquerable front: the terror of “taking the plunge” in conformity and the peril of attempting to go against the stream while stuck in a barrel destined for the Horseshoe Falls. Wet behind the ears, I seemed unlikely to get altogether soaked. My downfall would be suffocation, not rapture. The only recourse that appeared open to me back then was to assume the likeness of a devastating and lamented corpse when the bells were rung on my behalf by the re-producers in charge of casting me aside. I never got entirely over this feeling, but have long since learned to keep afloat.