Monday, January 21, 2013

Over the Edge

George (Joseph Cotten): Why should the Falls drag me down here at 5 o'clock in the morning? To show me how big they are and how small I am? To remind me they can get along without any help? All right, so they've proved it. But why not? They've had 10,000 years to get independent. What's so wonderful about that? I suppose I could, too, only it might take a little more time.

They come and they go, the pinup sensations and the slinky actresses who seize our collective attention for a year or two until the next one comes along.

Marilyn Monroe, though, was different. Her decade was the 1950s, but she would have stood out in any decade. Only the clothes and the hairstyle would vary.

Sixty years ago, Marilyn was probably in her prime, and the movie that made its debut on this day in 1953 — "Niagara" — clearly was a turning point for her. In 1952, she made $750/week, but after "Niagara," her salary went up 67%.

She went on to make most of her most memorable films after her appearance in "Niagara," but that was really when the Marilyn phenomenon began.

About a quarter of a century later, "Charlie's Angels" was credited with pioneering what came to be known as "jiggle TV."

But the model for it was really developed on the big screen by Marilyn Monroe. I mean, did anyone ever walk away from a camera the way Marilyn did?

And I mean movie cameras. Still cameras could only capture her beauty. They couldn't fully convey her movements when she walked.

As I say, she stood out.

That was her character's problem in "Niagara," too. She attracted a lot of attention — from her actual lover, with whom she communicated in various ways, and those who wanted to be her lover, like the kids at the Niagara Falls motel where she and her husband (Joseph Cotten) were staying — and her husband, too, for that matter.

Cotten's character clearly had issues with his wife's behavior — at one point, when Marilyn was about to leave the motel to meet her lover, Cotten told her she "smell[ed] like a dime store," and she tauntingly replied, "I'm meeting somebody, just anybody handy, as long as he's a man!"

(OK, sometimes the dialogue in "Niagara" lacked subtlety, but I doubt that most film noirs, as melodramatic as they tended to be, managed to avoid that pitfall.)

She knew how to push all his buttons, but she didn't want to annoy him. She wanted to be rid of him, and her lover was going to help her do that. That, essentially, was the plan.

But things didn't go according to plan.

There was a lot of electricity between Monroe and Cotten. In the first half of the movie, it was face to face, but in the second half of the movie, when Monroe realized that her lover, not Cotten, had been killed, the electricity took on a more sinister and shadowy aura.

He was out there, somewhere, and Monroe knew why he had killed her lover — because her lover had tried to kill him. He knew that she had cajoled her lover into coming after him — perhaps because he had been cajoled by her into killing someone else years before.

(That's just speculation on my part. But who knows?)

Ultimately, Cotten's character — who, it was suggested earlier in the movie, had been discharged from an Army mental hospital — killed Marilyn and then accidentally abducted a young woman who had been kind to him at the motel. Their boat ran out of gas on the river above the Falls, and Cotten put the young woman (Jean Peters) on a rock just before the boat went over.

Just before that, when Peters was still on board the boat, Peters' husband (Max Showalter) muttered "Scuttle it!" as he watched from the shoreline. Later, after Peters was retrieved by helicopter, an officer observed, "That's the first time somebody said 'Scuttle it!' as a prayer."

"And had it answered," Showalter replied.

Critics of the time were tepid in their praise of Monroe, but I think she often got (and continues to get) the short end of that stick. Because of her beauty, the assumption was and is that she was a dumb blonde — when, in fact, it was Marilyn who really created the dumb blonde.

The characters she played may have been dumb, but she wasn't dumb — and certainly not in "Niagara." She was cold and conniving. Her plan did not fail because it was a bad plan. It failed because her husband found a way to beat it.

Nevertheless, Monroe was dismissed as human scenery.

Don't get me wrong. Monroe was and still is pleasing to the eye. But there was much more to the package. (As far as I am concerned, Peter was every bit as appealing — in her own way — as Monroe in "Niagara.")

Some reputations are determined to live on, and it is likely that Monroe will still be regarded as an airhead decades from now. But, for those who are willing to evaluate her with fresh eyes, her movies are out there waiting to be seen, and "Niagara" will bear witness to her talent.