During the 1950s, the emergence of television put pressure on cinema to reassert itself as a cultural spectacle. Directors and producers responded with all kinds of innovations, from 3-D to widescreen to roadshow formats. One of the more stately and classical responses came from Niagara, a sumptuous Technicolor noir directed by Henry Hathaway, and scripted by Charles Brackett, Richard L. Breen and Walter Reisch. In essence, Niagara takes the spectacular infrastructure of Niagara Falls, on the border of the United States and Canada, and uses it to evoke a renewed cinematic possibility. From the opening shot, of a figure dwarfed by the Falls, and by the arc of a rainbow, this is a paean to Niagara – and probably still the most spectacular film or audiovisual text that has ever been crafted on location here.
At the same time, Niagara is a sublime noir psychodrama that frequently foreshadows Vertigo. Noir was one of the most claustrophobic of Hollywood genres, and Hathway retains that sense of constriction here, while amplifying the sweep and scale of his images beyond anything to be found in traditional noir. The plot revolves around two couples, whose paths intersect when they find themselves in neighbouring cabins at a hotel on the brink of the falls. The first couple are Polly Cutler, played by Jean Peters, and Ray Cutler, played by Max Showalter. Polly and Ray are enjoying a delayed honeymoon, while Ray, who works in shredded wheat, wants to visit the company headquarters in the actual town of Niagara Falls.
The second couple are Rose Loomis, played by Marilyn Monroe, and George Loomis, played by Joseph Cotten. Whereas the Cutlers are presented in quite a naturalistic manner, the Loomis’ are far more expressionistic. George keeps to his room, and Rose brims with an intensity that’s difficult to quantify – until Polly sees her with another man at the base of the Falls. From there, we move to a rapidly evolving murder mystery – Rose sends her lover to murder George, but George survives the encounter, and comes after Rose, eventually killing her. George then escapes, and commandeers a boat at the river above the Falls, taking Polly with him before freeing her on the brink of the Falls, and then plummeting to his death below.
This story would be compelling on its own terms, but Hathaway compounds it with two distinct spectacles – the Falls and Marilyn’s screen presence. This was the first time that the Falls were ever captured in Technicolor, and the film makes the most of it. The cabins, like the action, are poised right on the edge of the Falls, and we’re reminded of the Falls in every interior space too, since there’s nearly always a photograph or a map of them somewhere in the background. From the moment that we meet the Cutlers passing through Customs into Canadian territory, Hathaway emphasises the different thresholds that usher in the Falls, which have a palpable effect on the lighting of the film too, suffusing everything with the bright reflective sheen of their presence. The dominant colour here is white, but it’s a whiteness that is as occlusive as the darkness of classical noir, turning Niagara into a very early example of film soleil, especially when the action converges upon the base of the Falls.
Since this bright light is so obfuscating, Niagara is driven by sound as much as sight. There’s very little soundtrack, so most scenes are scored to the sound of the Falls in the background, where they’re only occasionally interrupted by peals from the Rainbow Tower. This gives the film a unique, meditative ambience that’s unlike any other release from this era, especially when paired with Hathaway’s languorous pans and expansive establishing shots. This is literal white noise, a negative noise produced by the base of the Falls, which absorb and muffle any dialogue or sound that the characters project into the ether. You feel a perpetual hush, a presience of something that only the grandeur and breadth of the big screen can fully capture.
This hush is also a brilliant backdrop for the peculiar melancholy of film noir, suffusing the action with a drifting desuetude – the apathy and interia of long-term vacationers, people lingering too long in motel rooms. There’s an especially marked contrast between the noirish generation of Joseph Cotten, who looks quite old and haggard here, and the perkier younger couple. Like the Falls, George is stuck in a groove – movement without change. His relationship with Rose is particularly incoherent, generationally speaking, as is Marilyn’s presence in the film. For while there’s a synergy between George’s noirish traits and Rose’s femme fatale attributes, his archetype has aged since his 40s heyday, whereas hers hasn’t. Rose feels caught out of time, trapped between the femme fatales of yore and the newer suburban set, turning her singularity into the second spectacle of the film, alongside the Falls.
In other words, Marilyn culminates and personifies the film’s fixation with the spectacular infrastructure of Niagara Falls. We seem to approach the Falls from every angle, as Hathaway takes us through lookouts, funicular, cable car, the Scenic Tunnel to the base of the falls, the Table Rock platform at the base of the falls and, of course, the Maid of the Mist boat tour. We see a cinema of attractions at play here, as the logistical challenge of filming the Falls becomes a kind of spectacle in itself. Yet this isn’t mere spectacle either, since these various trajectories towards the base of the Falls imbue the film with a profound emergence, a mysterious sense of provisionality, suspending the characters between reality and spectacle.
It’s at this point that Marilyn becomes the focal point of all the film’s sightlines. We first meet her as an embodied cognate of the Falls, showering in her cabin as the Falls thunder down outside. Hathaway also converges the brilliant blonde of her hair with the soleil palette of the film, especially in the second act, when she’s swathed in the white sheet of a hospital bed that mirrors the starchy brilliance at the base of the Falls. You sense, in this convergence of Marilyn and Niagara, a yearning to escape the banality of middle-class American life, especially whenever the action turns towards Ray’s shredded wheat empire. Ray is at the other spectrum of the film’s characters from Monroe – a suburban buffoon whose only interest in Niagara lies in the town’s industrial precinct, “where breakfast food became a national institution.” He’s a televisual character, a man more at home in a weekly sitcom, just as the wheat factory is in the very opposite direction from the sublime curvature of the Falls.
Marilyn thus embodies all the poise of the Falls and the poise with which the film handles the Falls. Like a Lady of the Mist herself, she seems like an emanation of the Falls, corporeal and mercurial in the same instant. She’s so dissonant with the form of reality represented by the Cutlers that she’s hyperreal, foreshadowing Kim Novak in Vertigo but also the stylised 1950s of David Lynch’s oeuvre, which already seem fully-formed here. Watching Niagara, I wondered whether Lynch had these Falls in mind when he chose Snoqualmie Falls as the anchor point of the iconic opening credit sequence to Twin Peaks. Certainly, Twin Peaks depends on the white noise of Snoqualmie in ways that vividly recall the use of Niagara here.
Of course, this also means that Marilyn and the Falls offer a new cinematic futurity in Hathway’s vision – they embody one possible future of cinematic spectacle. Early in the film, Polly marvels at a light show over the Falls, observing that it ended with “a couple of colours I never heard of before.” Marilyn is also like a new colour, or a new sensory apparatus, in this film, and often wears outfits in colours that jar dramatically with the dominant white palette. Niagara was also one of the very last films at Fox to be shot in three-strip Technicolor, and revels in the hyperreality of that format, while rarefying it through the fine mist of the Falls.
This futuristic spectacle all converges on the base of the Falls – a primal cinematic lexicon of light, water and air. The images become more ethereal and vaporous as we get closer to the base – we first see Rose and her lover during Polly’s first trip to the base, and then George seems to vanish into the base before he’s murdered. When he returns, he returns refracted in the polished glass at the sides of bedroom windows, or the edges of bathroom mirrors, like a distorted emanation of the Falls outside. At the end of the third act, Polly encounters him during a tour of the Cave of the Winds – the closest tourists can get to the base. He pursues her up the steepest staircase, taking us closer and closer to the thundering water, until the spray seems to pulverise the celluloid into an abstraction of light, a blueprint for future soleil.
As the third act rolls in, Hathaway revisits and revises these trajectories and sightlines to identify his camera even more intimately with the base of the Falls. He does so in three distinct stages, all largely free of dialogue and soundtrack, scored only to the omniscient murmur of the Falls, punctuated by dramatic diegetic intrusions of noise. The first stage occurs when the body of Rose’s lover is discovered, the police are called, and the Niagara precinct is locked down. Rose exhausts every threshold as she tries to get across the border – bus, bridge, sidewalk – in a trajectory that takes her through a tour group hearing about an even more flamboyant border crossing – by tightrope – until she finds George waiting for her in the one remaining escape route, and the one remaining sightline, left for her to traverse.
This sequence heightens our awareness of all the thresholds around the Falls, and of the Falls itself as a threshold-spectacle, ushering in the second stage in this climactic consolidation. This second stage takes us into the Rainbow Tower, the one zone controlled by both Canada and the United States, for a sequence that must have been a factor in Alfred Hitchcock’s vision for Vertigo. In an extraordinary passage of images, the music briefly returns, escalates and then cuts abruptly to silence, as the camera pans over the taut bell strings, quivering and almost stimulated by the vibrations of George murdering Rose in the tower. From there, we cut to a slow pan outside the Tower, and the white noise of the Falls once again, in the most poised and perfect balance of sound and silence, the epicentre of the film’s meditative hush.
We now move to the third stage of the film – and the final climax. This takes us outside the Niagara precinct for the first time, shifting us upriver where the Cutlers are planning to hire a boat. In a matter of minutes, however, we’re closer to the Falls than ever before, as George commandeers the boat, only to find Polly inside, and tries to make a getaway, only for the motor to give way, leaving them to drift into the pull of the Falls. Suddenly, we see the same naturalistic play of land and water – the same taste for the vast spaces, silences and ambiences of water – that Steven Spielberg would parlay twenty years later in Jaws. Since the Falls are so close here, the river is particularly broad and expansive – deceptively calm, in the same way that the New England seascapes of Jaws are deceptively serene. As with Jaws, much of this last scene is driven by people simply watching actions unfold across great swathes of water, since there’s only so far the police boat can safely go in an attempt to pursue George.
This paves the way for a truly sublime conclusion, as we approach the epicentre of the Niagara spectacle from a new and uncanny angle – as a slight mist on the river horizon, rather than a raging torrent of water. Once again we’re heading towards the base of the Falls, but now the only trajectory is over the Falls, as George and Polly are suddenly faced with all the intensity of the open ocean. The final threshold gets more and more liminal, repeating the threefold structure of this final act in miniature. First, Polly manages to touch a rock at the very tip of the Falls. Then, when the rock is slippery, she manages to hold on to a small branch clinging onto it, as George, and the boat go over the edge. Finally, after clambering onto the rock, she climbs, precariously, onto a chair that is lowered by a police rescue helicopter, poised in the space just above the Falls – right where the top of the Falls cascades into and forms the base.
This is the final sublime viewpoint of the film, and yet the film can’t quite inhabit it, or give us a proper POV shot, as Polly remains dangling, directly above the base of the Falls, with the direct 90-degree view – the view of a tightrope walker – that the film has been yearning for from its opening scene. Yet that just makes this ending even more memorable, leaving the film poised on the brink of its own spectacular horizon, which remains uncontainable, like the Falls themselves, or Marilyn herself, but fleetingly glimpsable via cinema. Call it an incitement to cinephilia – a reminder that the pleasures of cinema are always fleeting, but that only cinema can provide that fleeting pleasure when it is as mercurial and as majestic as it is here.