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There are at least 26 good reasons to straighten your stocking seams, touch up your lip rouge, and queue up for Film Forum’s Femmes Noir series, running from July 18 through August 7. Here are just three: Joan Crawford’s long-suffering, pie-making matriarch in Mildred Pierce (July 18, 19 and 31); Gene Tierney’s ravishing, murderous schemer — one possessed of the most stunning overbite known to man — in Leave Her to Heaven (July 20 and 21); and Jane Greer’s predatory faux angel, who comes shimmering along in a saucer-shaped halo of a hat, in one of the most unsparing and bleakly beautiful of all films noir, Out of the Past (also July 20 and 21).
But of all the femmes vying for our attention here, perhaps the most willful and terrifying is played by an actress whom we associate with innocence and vulnerability: In Henry Hathaway’s 1953 Niagara (July 22), Marilyn Monroe plays Rose Loomis, the bored wife of Joseph Cotten’s emotionally damaged war vet, George. Her beauty is resplendent, but you wouldn’t call it fragile. Rose is a hip-swaying bombshell with murder in her heart; her lips, gleaming red, are an invitation to a poison kiss.
This isn’t a Marilyn you want to embrace and protect. As Rose, she’s alert and defiant, a woman who has defined exactly what she wants and has forged a plan to help her get it. This performance, among the star’s finest, gives the lie to the idea that she couldn’t really act. What it suggests, instead, is that Marilyn was a natural: Her desire to be taken seriously as an actor, and her subsequent serious study of the craft, may have made her more self-conscious, constraining her gifts rather than opening a conduit for them. In Niagara, Marilyn’s Rose is self-determined, boldly sexual, almost impossibly cruel. And still, you feel for her: Mincing along in high-heeled sandals and a suit the color of a brazen afternoon sky, on the way to meet her lover — a wily operator who’s as slick as Cotten’s George is rumpled — Rose is everything that good girls have been taught not to be. But there’s also a gorgeous futility radiating from her soul: Sometimes there’s just no cure for the nagging malady of wanting something more.
Niagara is set, and was filmed, in the area around the rushing natural phenomenon that was once the stereotypical go-to spot for honeymooners. It’s also the perfect setting for a honeymoon nightmare: George and Rose have been holed up in the cabin with the best view of the falls, but it turns out to be no place for lovebirds. Long past the honeymoon stage, they’ve been married for years, and now they’re just drifting, quite literally. Somehow they’ve landed in a place that celebrates romance, but for them, it’s the setting for disintegration. The mood inside their cabin is oppressive, airless. When George isn’t crouched over a small table, building balsa-wood model cars, he’s wandering around the falls late into the night, returning to find Rose only pretending to be asleep. Seconds earlier, we’ve seen her awake, smoking a cigarette, staring into the blank space of the damned — when she hears the click of the door as George approaches, she rolls over. It’s a moment of fake innocence that represents the ultimate contempt.
Rose has had it with George and has taken a lover. The great tragedy is that you can understand why: Formerly a successful sheep farmer, George has had a run of bad luck, including emerging from the war with “battle fatigue.” Rose likes parties and fun, and George represents neither of those things: He has a face like a slept-in bed.
When carefree honeymoon couple Ray and Polly Cutler show up at the cabin complex — they’re played by Jean Peters and Max Showalter (who at that point went by the name Casey Adams) — they immediately know something is wrong. Polly, in particular, tries to help. When Rose defiantly requests a specific song at a party with the Cutlers — a song that has romantic significance to her, relating to her extracurricular activities — George seizes the record as it spins and breaks it to pieces, cutting his hand. He retreats to his cabin. Polly follows, intending to bandage him up, and she finds him standing in the dark, holding his wounded hand in front of him. “I suppose she sent you in here to find out if I cut it off,” he snaps, and we don’t have to wonder what it is.
But Rose only thinks she holds all the cards here. In a later scene, she lies in a hospital bed, restless with a purely emotional fever, a shivery foreshadowing of the direction Marilyn’s own life would eventually take. You can imagine that any filmmaker who had the chance to work with her would fall under the spell of her beauty. Hathaway, with his exquisite framing skills, pays tribute in the most respectful way. When she walks away from the camera, and from us, her womanly wriggle is exaggerated. Yet the sight of it isn’t prurient; it’s simply the semaphore of a desperate woman on the move. (It’s also, of course, sexy as hell.) In the movie’s most stunning sequence — one that points the way forward five years to Vertigo — Rose is pursued on the stairway leading up to a bell tower, terror in her heart and in her eyes. She can’t possibly get away with all she’s done, and yet, of course, you want her to.
Poor George, her biggest victim, feels the same rankled tenderness for her that we do, and the most deeply moving moment in Niagara is a tribute to her that doesn’t even show her face. George picks up a jeweled lipstick case she’s dropped, opening it to reveal the tube of crimson inside, maybe the last thing to touch her lips. Does he think, at that moment, the same thing Romeo was thinking when he implored Juliet, “Sin from thy lips? O trespass sweetly urged! Give me my sin again.” The Marilyn of Niagara is his sin, and ours, too. No wonder we want her again and again.