'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes' made her a star, but 'Niagara,' a nifty little Technicolor film noir released earlier the same year, put Marilyn Monroe on the cinematic map. Though she previously spiced up such A-level productions as 'All About Eve,' 'The Asphalt Jungle,' and 'Monkey Business' in notable supporting parts, Monroe made a splash as monumental as the film's eponymous falls in this Henry Hathaway thriller, which allowed her for the first and only time in her storied career the opportunity to play a duplicitous bad girl. Sexier than Lana Turner in 'The Postman Always Rings Twice' and more sympathetic than Barbara Stanwyck in 'Double Indemnity,' Monroe accents the femme in femme fatale, crafting a fatally glamorous portrait of a conniving four-alarm siren whose incendiary allure transcends that of any other Hollywood actress. If given the chance, men would line up by the thousands to be manipulated, teased, and even spurned by such a sensual seductress. And that's all due to a single, extended close-up and a sultry song called 'Kiss.'
The iconic shot occurs about 17 minutes into the film when Monroe emerges from a rustic cabin wearing a tight-fitting, low-cut, off-the-shoulder magenta dress with a thin white chiffon wrap casually draped around her back. She hands a party boy a phonograph record and sullenly asks, "Would you mind playing this?" He dutifully complies, and after a few bars she begins to sing along. The lyrics and arrangement are syrupy, but her vocal delivery is anything but. With a light breeze blowing her wavy blonde hair, her painted lips glistening in the moonlight, her eyes half shut in a romantic reverie, she oozes sex appeal and projects a mesmerizing magnetism. The camera - always Marilyn's closest ally - lingers on this sizzling image for a long time...not long enough for my taste, but long enough to forever embed Monroe in our collective consciousness and earn her well-deserved stardom and eventual immortality. Yes, the picture is that powerful, and it's worth far more than a thousand words.
'Niagara' is not a great film, but it's a brisk, seductive, absorbing piece of popcorn entertainment, distinguished by solid performances, a couple of interesting twists that perk up the tired premise, and the powerful backdrop of the one of the world's most breathtaking natural wonders. (In this case, I mean Niagara Falls, not Marilyn Monroe, although she more than qualifies for inclusion in the category.) The location shooting adds an authentic accent, with the omnipresent rushing torrents of cascading water heightening suspense and playing a starring role in the movie's over the top (and over the edge) climax.
Though 'Niagara' starts innocently enough, focusing on cheery young marrieds Polly and Ray Cutler (Jean Peters and Casey Adams) and their arrival at the falls on a delayed honeymoon, it quickly takes a melodramatic turn as we get to know another, less happy couple, Rose and George Loomis (Monroe and Joseph Cotten), who are staying at the same inn overlooking the falls. George is a troubled, insecure man, possibly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after a tour of duty in Korea, and the curvaceous Rose, we soon learn, is shamelessly two-timing him with a beefy hunk (Richard Allan). The Cutlers try to ease the tension between the volatile pair, and soon become unwitting enablers in a deadly game that doesn't go as planned, and ends up spiraling out of control.
Though shot in brilliant Technicolor, this film noir possesses many of the same enticing elements that distinguish the genre's black-and-white classics. 'Niagara' may not be as hard-boiled as movies based on novels by Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain, but it occasionally brandishes a well-honed edge that makes its many trite moments bearable. Part travelogue (the film seems to hit all the Niagara Falls tourist highlights) and part mystery, the picture somehow gels into a cohesive whole and has held up darn well over the past six decades.
Credit Monroe for the durability of 'Niagara.' While her acting is, for the most part, strong, she's still a little rough around the edges in some scenes, enunciating too precisely here and emoting too heavily there. Yet her captivating presence and charisma elevate the story, and when she unleashes her inner vamp, it's a sight to behold. Cotten portrays her tortured, insanely jealous husband well, generating a surprising amount of sympathy despite his questionable deeds, while the fresh-faced Peters, who three years later would become the wife of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, conveys an attractive girl-next-door quality that nicely balances Monroe's unvarnished sex appeal.
'Niagara' can't compete for top noir honors, but it remains a satisfying genre entry and puts a potent exclamation point on Marilyn Monroe's Hollywood apprenticeship. Hereafter, the iconic star would dominate almost every movie in which she appeared, but never again would she play such a hard-nosed, deceitful character. Yet when all is said and done, 'Niagara' isn't about an adulterous couple plotting to bump off an inconvenient husband; it's about how a sultry song and especially a monumental close-up gave birth to a cinema legend. End of story.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Niagara' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 4.0 surround. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the full-motion menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Lush, beautiful photography has always set 'Niagara' apart from similar thrillers, and the film's previous home video incarnations have all looked great. That said, I still wasn't prepared for the flat-out dazzling appearance of this high-def rendering. Crystal clarity, exceptional contrast, and a gloriously saturated color palette distinguish this vibrant, vivid 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that's a treat to watch from start to finish. Never has Marilyn's magnetism and allure seemed so potent or her connection with the camera so intimate. Time after time images pop up that demand freeze framing, and I don't just mean those of Monroe; Niagara Falls in all its unspoiled grandeur is captured from a variety of stunning angles, along with the rainbows it so often generates. The spotless source material keeps the spell unbroken, with not a single speck, mark, or errant scratch distracting us from the sublime images on display.
Colors are bright, bold, and sumptuous. Monroe's glossy lipstick, her red jacket, the yellow slickers the sightseers wear as they tour the falls, the blue hues of the river water, and green foliage lining the streets and riverbanks all make a statement. Not to be outdone, black levels are deliciously inky and intense (just look at Monroe's jacket and hat as she enters the morgue), the white foam and mist of the raging falls are always crisp and distinct, and fleshtones, from Marilyn's creamy complexion to Cotten's olive skin, remain natural and stable throughout. Close-ups, especially those of Monroe, are devastatingly glamorous (I could watch her sing 'Kiss' till the cows come home), background elements are easy to discern, shadow detail is quite good, and no crush, noise, banding, or other annoyances rear their ugly heads.
The one caveat to this magnificent effort is the sparing use of digital noise reduction, which seems to have erased the film's natural grain structure. A movie of this vintage usually doesn't exude such a smooth, dimensional look, but the razor sharp, high gloss appearance of this transfer nicely complements the story's cold nature. Though I'm usually a stickler for grain and revel in the texture it lends the image, I honestly don't miss it much here. I believe the Fox technicians have employed DNR intelligently in this instance (and in other Monroe Blu-ray titles), allowing it to subtly enhance the picture without the waxy and smeary look that's usually a byproduct of the process.
To these eyes, this is the best 'Niagara' has ever looked on home video, and those who own the previous Diamond Collection DVD should upgrade as soon as possible. You won't be sorry you did.
'Niagara' comes equipped with two lossless tracks, both newly remastered. There's the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 option and the more traditional DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 choice for those seeking to replicate the movie's original soundscape. Both provide clean, clear, well-modulated audio with a wide dynamic scale and no incidents of distortion, and any age-related defects, such as pops, crackles, and hiss, have been erased. The newly engineered 5.1 track does its best to widen the audio's scope, but the sound remains front-based. The music scoring and thunderous roar of the falls fill the room nicely, but there's no distinct action from any of the channels. Dialogue is always well prioritized and easy to comprehend, the church bells possess fine resonance, and solid bass undertones add punch and nuance to the falls sequences, offering that extra bit of ambience to immerse us in the setting.
The 1.0 track is equally well balanced, yet sounds slightly harsher, especially with regard to the falls. Atmospherics are weaker, too, but subtleties remain distinct and certain scenes sound almost identical to their 5.1 counterparts. Either option is solid, but the 5.1 track provides a more full-bodied, robust experience, as one might expect.
One would think if a studio is hyping a release as an anniversary edition (especially a 60th anniversary edition), the powers that be might sign off on a splashy supplemental package to truly honor the vintage motion picture, but that didn't happen here. Just like 'Bus Stop,' 'Niagara' includes no supplements, save for several Monroe trailers. This is a missed opportunity, considering Marilyn's iconic status, but sadly not a surprise. Monroe often received short shrift from Fox during her tenure at the studio, and it seems little has changed in the half century since her death, at least with regard to DVD and Blu-ray extras.
Would Marilyn Monroe have attained stardom without 'Niagara'? Absolutely! But this slick, engrossing, impeccably appointed thriller hastened the process and provided the up-and-coming actress with a golden opportunity to literally and figuratively strut her stuff. Though some of the action is far-fetched, a couple of twists put a fresh spin on the film's familiar premise, and with Monroe and the breathtaking falls as eye candy, 'Niagara' keeps us engaged and, at times, enraptured. Fox's sublime Blu-ray presentation features nicely refurbished audio and a superlative video transfer that showcases all the natural beauty on display, but supplements are frustratingly thin. While far from a classic, 'Niagara' is taut, suspenseful, and entertaining, a not-so-guilty pleasure that's easy to recommend even to those who aren't Monroe aficionados. But if you've got a thing for MM, this is one disc you can't afford to pass up.