Sunday, July 21, 2013

NIAGARA: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1953) Fox Home Video

By 1953, the year Henry Hathaway’s Niagara had its theatrical debut the ascendency of Marilyn Monroe from contract player to certifiable stardom could no longer be ignored. 20th Century-Fox had done their damnedest to promote Monroe, but in some really tepid to downright forgettable camp romantic comedies; 1951’s Love Nest and 1952’s Monkey Business among them. On the whole, Monroe’s career had fared far better on loan out, first to MGM for John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950), then later to RKO for Fritz Lang’s Clash By Night (1952).
These movies gave Marilyn a chance to exhibit far more depth; a side to the Monroe mystique that regrettably was set aside altogether in favor of her trademark ditzy blonde bombshell after the release of Howard Hawk’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). Niagara comes at the tail end of Fox’s blistering stream of dark and sinister film noirs. The last great noir in color had been John M. Stahl’s Leave Her To Heaven (1945) – a vehicle that transformed Gene Tierney’s sultry screen persona into that of a diabolically disturbed viper.
In retrospect, Niagara does pretty much the same thing for Marilyn’s screen image; cast as the seductress, Rose Loomis; blatantly flaunting her robust and raw sexuality in public much to the chagrin of her husband, George (Joseph Cotten) who also happens to be recovering from a nervous breakdown. Only a year before Niagara’s release, Fox had cast Monroe as the crazed and threatening babysitter in Don’t Bother To Knock; another exercise of her formidable acting chops opposite the studio’s heavy-hitter, Richard Widmark.
Niagara really doesn’t take its star down this primrose path into loopy insanity, and yet there is an element of the damned and the perverse in Rose Loomis that begins to close in almost from the beginning; articulated in Walter Reisch, Charles Brackett and Richard L. Been’s screenplay; more fully evolved by Joseph MacDonald’s eerie use of Technicolor – more shadow than light - to evoke this ever-constricting sense of claustrophobia.  Luminously photographed, Monroe is a sinful viper, the lurid pink, form-fitting dress she wears during an early outdoor party sequence positively radiating megawatts of cheap and uninhibited sensuality. There’s no doubt about it; Rose Loomis is a conniving tart. She smells of sex.
Of course, Marilyn was no stranger to sex appeal; having begun her movie career under a spurious cloud by appearing in the raw for a calendar and posing salaciously for the very first issue of Playboy Magazine. By now her body and her affinity for double entendre were well ensconced in the public’s mind – particularly the all-American hot-blooded (and presumably single) male who simply could not get enough of her frequently circulated pin-ups to add to his locker. For Niagara, Fox’s PR department decided one thing; nothing modest would do. Ad campaigns to promote the movie targeted its two greatest assets; Monroe and the Falls; the artwork showing Monroe stretched out across its precipice with the raging waters cascading over her curvaceous form.
The film never quite gets around to showing us anything so pointedly sensational. There are flashes of Monroe the sex kitten – most notably in the beginning of the film when she first meets the Cutlers; Polly (Jean Peters) and Ray (Max Schowalter), and later, a streak of Monroe’s bauble-headed trademark innocence that would become her stock and trade – and ultimately her cliché – just before George puts his hands around her throat to choke the life from her. 
We also get hearty dollops of Hurricane Monroe; the impenitent tigress bent on destruction as she seduces her tautly muscular lover, Patrick (Richard Allen) into committing a murder for lust. Too bad for Patrick, as well as Allan that Joseph Cotten’s George had both a stronger grip and more staying power at the box office. It’s a mystery, actually – because Fox had co-starred Allan in Susan Hayward’s classy biopic musical, With A Song In My Heart (1952) and had planned a big build-up for his career as a potential second string Lothario/stud muffin. Yet this never transpired beyond bit parts and cameos. Although Allan continued to work until 1962, and despite his dashing matinee idol good looks, his career was little more than a footnote.
In some ways, Niagara also marks a definite loss of interest from Fox in Jean Peters’ movie career; a starlet the studio had heavily promoted and even starred in Anne of the Indies (1951) before relegating to supporting parts in forgettable remakes (1953’s Vicki) or travelogue fluff pieces (Three Coins in the Fountain 1954). Peters could play good as well as bad – but in Niagara she’s a counterpoint to Monroe’s wicked little tart, smelling more of soap than sex as Polly Cutler – a too good to be true ‘little woman’, fun-loving and good-natured. Peter’s is up to the task, although she really isn’t given all that much to do in the film except react in shock and awe to the action going on around her. Niagara also does little for Joseph Cotten’s formidable talents. Cotten seems slightly ill at ease as the lumbering/brooding George; more a flaw in his acting than an inherent character trait deliberate played to establish George’s devolving sanity that eventually causes him to seek a most delicious – if brutal - revenge.   
No, Niagara is undeniably a vehicle tailored to its star and Marilyn gives us all the va-va-voom a sex goddess can muster - plus ten. From our introduction to Rose Loomis, callously pretending to be asleep so that she doesn’t have to consort with her husband, a man she so obviously cannot abide even for a fleeting moment or two; the lids of her eyes slyly opening when George’s back is turned and fairly brimming with the seediest of contempt that translates without Monroe having to say a word; this is a Marilyn unlike any other we have come to know or ever again would after Niagara’s debut. It’s a tantalizing portrait. Monroe, the tawdry viper, the scurrilous femme fatale whose wiggle is enough to set anyone’s house on fire and whose penchant for being a devious tease inflames George’s wild desire to self-destruct.
It’s all just an act, of course – or rather, partly. For Rose has already decided upon a plan of action to rid herself of George for a playmate more her age and temperament with whom she believes she will be able to start a brand new life. But in order to make it all look like an accident George has to appear every bit the crazy sick man Rose tells everybody that he is. So, she sets the poor guy up – cooing seductive lyrics over a record to encourage the local male color to partake in her invitation to “Kiss…kiss me, hold…hold me…this is the moment of thrills,” all the while knowing George is frustratingly obsessed and upset by the spectacle as it unfolds. Rose knows exactly what buttons to push and when to put the brakes on – plying her wiles until George flips out, tearing apart their rented bungalow and inflicting damage to his hand.
Tended to by Polly – who insists to George “she’s a pretty girl…why hide it?” Polly perceptively reasons that there’s more to the Loomis story than first meets the eye. But she’s empathetic to a fault, even though George’s outbursts arguably frighten her. The screenplay is also clever about weaving in a minor subplot; the Cutler’s having come down for a Kellogg Convention after Ray has won a contest for the best new marketing slogan – garnering praise from his boss, J. R. Kettering (Don Wilson) who has also brought his wife (Lurene Tuttle) along.
When at the Falls do as the tourists do. The Ketterings and the Cutlers make a bizarre foursome as they pursue some of the more obvious pleasures, including a ride on the famed Maid of the Mist and a tour through the Rainbow Caverns carved beneath the Falls. It’s during this latter excursion, while encouraged by Ray to lean farther back against the soaking wet railings so that he can get a better picture of Polly that she encounters Rose and Patrick locked in a passionate embrace behind some rocks. The couple is too involved to take notice of her, but Polly hurries back to Ray’s side, suggestively hinting that Rose Cutler has found the perfect remedy for a splitting headache.
Returning to the cabin hours later, Rose is confronted by George, who once again has been stirred into a panic when she glibly refuses to tell him where she has been all afternoon. “I’m meeting somebody,” she openly taunts, “Just anybody at all…as long as he’s a man.” Determined to get to the bottom of things, George tails his wife around town the next day, believing that he is, in fact, following her to a preordained rendezvous. In actuality, Rose has set George up for a not-so-chance confrontation with Patrick – a man George has never met – but who has vowed to rid Rose of his nuisance by pushing George over the side of the Rainbow Caverns into the raging waters below.
Hathaway’s handling of the mystery – who has managed to kill who at the Rainbow Caverns – is heightened by a frenzied chase; Polly hunted down by a presumably dead and enraged George, the misdirection made known to us as George attempts to gain Polly’s compassion and trust, but nearly pushes her over the side by accident, before explaining how he killed Patrick in self-defense. Given what she has seen earlier Polly believes George. But she also encourages him to go to the police with his story to set the record straight. In the meantime, Rose has been called to the morgue to identify some newly discovered remains dredged up from the waters. When what’s beneath the white cloth proves not to be what Rose anticipated she spirals into a mini-breakdown of her own, necessitating a brief stay at the local hospital. But George is not through with Rose just yet.
He requests her favorite song, ‘Kiss’ to be played by the bell tower, the ominous chimes alerting Rose to the fact that George is still very much alive and probably preparing something awful for her. Stirred from her drug-induced sleep to check herself out of the hospital, Rose scurries to the bus terminal to buy a ticket to anywhere to escape her husband’s wrath. Regrettably, he has already anticipated her next move, stalking Rose to the bell tower where he cold-bloodedly murders her as the chimes fall silent. Unfortunately, George hasn’t thought through his next move. It is closing time and he is trapped in the tower with Rose’s corpse. Rather than sneak out after everyone else has gone home, George patiently awaits the morning crew’s arrival; then quietly skulks off after hiding Rose’s body upstairs. But Polly has alerted the police to the fact that George is alive.
As the dragnet closes in George attempts to flee in a boat the Ketterings have rented for an afternoon sail on the lake. Polly is trapped by George. He takes her as his hostage before charting the vessel into the dangerous undertow and rapids above the Falls. The engine stalls and the pair helplessly drifts toward the precipice. At the last possible moment George has a moment of clarity, forcing Polly out of the boat onto a craggy rock protruding from the raging surf. As Polly clings for her life to this slippery embankment George and the boat go over the edge; the evil that he has wrought upon Rose and Patrick returned to engulf and devour him too.
Niagara is a superb noir – albeit in glorious Technicolor. Apart from the obvious assets of its location photography and the sight of Marilyn looking utterly radiant in color, Niagara also boasts a heart-palpating score by Sol Kaplan. It’s over-melodramatic, yet lush and ominous in a way that almost compliments Joseph MacDonald’s vicarious cinematography. The supporting cast is competent but stick-figured at best; Jean Peters and Joseph Cotten about the only ones able to withstand the tidal wash of Marilyn and the Falls gushing in on all sides.
Max Showalter is a minor nuisance. Ditto for Don Wilson. Thankfully, both are relegated to the extreme backdrop where their annoying personalities can do little to no harm. Hathaway takes full advantage of both his spectacular outdoor locations and the spectacle that was Marilyn Monroe...her every curve generating a sleazy sensuality. A more prudent vacationer may not want to plan a trip to the Falls under similarly morbid circumstances, but Monroe proves a natural wonder in her own right that is both something to see and n’er to be missed.
Wow and thank you Fox Home Video for resurrecting Niagara in a resplendent hi-def Blu-ray worthy of both Marilyn and the movie. A year ago Fox released a compendium of Monroe titles to 1080p that were represented in less than pluperfect condition. Niagara was not among these offerings and, at the time, there was some speculation whether the movie would be released at all. The DVD transfer had suffered from horrible edge effects and reoccurring mis-registration of the Technicolor records that created distracting halos over at least half of the movie. Worse, the color seemed off – favoring a curious blue-bilious-green patina with purplish/pink flesh tones.
But now comes this 60th anniversary Blu-ray.  It is a wonder to behold. It should be noted first off that the former regime at Fox ditched virtually all of their original 3-strip Technicolor negatives in the mid-1970s, making masters from combined records instead. These continued to badly fade and break down over the years. Truthfully, I didn’t hold out much hope for Niagara ever looking anywhere near as good as it does on Blu-ray.
Not only has Fox gone back to ground zero with a new color density restoration and remastering effort that yields probably the truest hues indigenous to the original theatrical presentation, but fine detail has taken a quantum leap into the future. For the first time we can see Monroe’s trademark blond tresses strand by strand. Fabrics pop, background information comes to life and flesh tones look exceptionally natural. There’s no comparison. Your old DVD is now officially a Frisbee. Donate it to the public library and rush to buy this Blu-ray to add to your collections. It’s that good.
Better still is the remastered DTS audio – delivering a hearty mix that will astound. The rush of the Falls sounds refined and deafening, Sol Kaplan’s score rings with renewed clarity that really adds to one’s overall viewing enjoyment. This is an extraordinary transfer. We’ll be critical for just a quick minute to admit being disappointed over Fox not including anything in the way of extras to augment this classic noir. No audio commentary, or featurette or even some vintage newsreels. Nothing, except a few discarded trailers. Boo-hoo! But we won’t poo-poo it any further. Fox has spent their money where it has done the most good – on the transfer. Niagara is a must have. Own it today!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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