Friday, 4 September 2020

Niagara (1953)

Niagara (Henry Hathaway 1953) never fails to dazzle me. What is remarkable about it is how extremely stylised it is, in every way, from how people walk and talk, to how it looks. It is an exercise in pure form, and it looks incredible, as if Edward Hopper, David Hockney and Salvador Dalí had a love child together. The fact that it is shot on location around the Niagara Falls does not add realism but instead adds to the sense of formalism and surrealism. Hathaway, and the cinematographer Joe MacDonald, clearly relished the chance to go all abstraction. A murder in the Rainbow Tower is one of the most visually audacious sequences in American cinema. (This is where Dalí comes in.) 

The fact that the story, a young happy couple on a delayed honeymoon at the Falls becoming entangled with the disturbed, homicidal couple in the next cabin, is both coherent and plausible within this hermetic world makes the film even more remarkable.

Marilyn Monroe and Jean Peters play the leads, with Joseph Cotten and Max Showalter (aka Casey Adams) playing their husbands. Showalter plays a naive, childish character, almost a parody of the all-American boy-next-door with his career the only thing on his mind. His wife is more mature and the story is partly told through her eyes. The two marriages, one appealingly, if not annoyingly, cheerful and the other dark and sinister, built on resentment and jealousy, make a good contrast.

Hathaway wanted James Mason in the part now played by Cotten ("There's nothing erotic about Joe Cotten." he said) but, according to Hathaway, Mason's daughter did not want him to do yet another film where daddy died, so Mason declined the role. Working with Monroe was difficult, but Hathaway seemed to have got on well with her, and felt protective of her and alarmed by how lonely she was, and without professionals to support her. (Barbara Leaming, in her Monroe biography, says he "became a teddy bear" with her.) She was nervous and self-conscious, so on some occasions Hathaway filmed the rehearsals without telling her, because she was more relaxed then, and used that material in the film.

In Hathaway's oeuvre there is no other film like this one, but then there are few films quite like it in anyone's oeuvre. A feverish dream, where things are distilled into pure emotions and pure colours.

Hathaway's thoughts come from Henry Hathaway, the interview book with Polly Platt from 2001, and Henry Hathaway: The Lives of a Hollywood Director (2016) by Harold N. Pomainville. Barbara Leaming's Marilyn Monroe: A Biography is from 1998.

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