Of all of Marilyn Monroe’s most important early roles, it’s Asphalt Jungle which I would dearly love to talk about in length one day. It’s such a great film. She plays an older man’s dizzy mistress, and despite her minor role in it, we get a glimpse of her potential as a rising star. (It is the first film that Marilyn also changed her hair colour to the more familiar blonde bombshell look.) Unfortunately, many of her early supporting roles are just that, and it took the sexy thriller Niagara (1953) to give Marilyn her first truly starring vehicle.
The film follows the story around Rose Loomis (Marilyn Monroe) plot to murder her weary suffering husband George (Joseph Cotton), a war veteran. In short, the selfish manipulative Rose endeavors to use her young lover to carry out her dirty work. But the plan to kill George completely backfires. George is no fool, but as a troubled man, he is completely enraged by her plot and act of adultery (which he always suspected) and hatches a plan of his own. Caught in the middle of it all are newlyweds, Polly (Jean Peters) and Ray Cutler (Casey Adams), which helps to anchor the story in its twists and turns, especially the tragic and dramatic ending of the film set on Niagara Falls.
If there is one minor criticism of the film worthy of discussing, it is undoubtedly the producers and/or director Henry Hathaway’s obsession with Monroe’s growing status as a sex symbol. I wonder whether the filmmakers intentions was to exploit her femininity just for the sake of it, rather than tidying up some of the loose threads in its script? The film is particularly famous for its daring walking sequence, often referred to as “the longest walk in cinema history”, where Monroe walks away from the camera and our eyes firmly fixated on Monroe’s hip-swaying walk. Though, I suppose, no female fatale character on-screen would truly work without its female protagonist flaunting her beauty, charm and sexual allure? If we look at from this point of view, Monroe played her part to perfection as a scheming blonde bombshell adulteress.
All of this of course was heightened by Twentieth Century-Fox’s choice to film Niagara in Technicolor, rather than as a black and white picture. Though I must admit as a Hollywood film noir enthusiast, those early pictures filmed in Technicolor, somehow for me never really capture the fatalistic mood or menace that film noir black and white pictures had, especially with its stylized use of low-key lighting, silhouette effects and unbalanced compositions. Nonetheless, today with the advances in blu ray technology for example, even I’m prepared to admit revisiting Niagara at home on my big screen TV, it looks better than ever in colour, especially the film’s scenery in and around Niagara Falls. Even Marilyn is admittedly truly dazzling in colour. She glows supremely, especially in her tightly fitted attire revealing her sultry figure. Look out for that infamous red dress as she sings in a soft low voice the song ‘Kiss’ in one of the films most memorable moments.
Marilyn Monroe’s solid performance in Niagara, dramatic at times and sultry the next, opened the door for her in Hollywood like no other film before. The commercial success of the film alone secured her roles she probably never dreamed were possible. As for the rest of the cast, they do a damn good job as well. Leading the way is the underrated Joseph Cotton as George Loomis, Rose’s hapless husband-turned killer, who we at first sympathise with, but soon after find ourselves rooting against him. Apart from Monroe’s very good performance as I have mentioned, I’m equally smittened by the beautiful Jean Peters, who almost steals the limelight in one her best supporting roles as Polly Cutler, who gets caught up in the Loomis couples deadly drama. Finally, Casey Adams, as Polly’s dull and at times clueless husband, rounds out a cast of strong performances.