Max Showalter

Niagara (1953, Henry Hathaway)

Niagara has some noir-ish elements to it—femme fatale wife Marilyn Monroe stepping out on war veteran husband Joseph Cotten—but it’s not about the darkness, it’s about the light. And its location shooting. Niagara takes full advantage of the falls, not just for scenery but for multiple story elements (we find out Monroe’s stepping out because she heads to the falls to meet up with her much younger, prettier, and presumably not PTSD-suffering lover, Richard Allan). Director Hathaway and cinematographer Joseph MacDonald basically do an exceptionally good commercial for the possibilities of Technicolor (and location shooting). Hathaway and MacDonald show it can do noir, it can do suspense, it can do action, it can do drama, it can ogle Monroe. The first act of the film, in addition to introducing the cast and setup, is all about ogling Monroe. Sometimes as a plot point—when Monroe’s turning heads—other times just because. The film also comes up with a really creative way for her to get to do a song, like they want to remind everyone she sings too.

The film opens with Cotten stumbling back to their motel in the early morning, narrating about existence. There’s no further narration in the film and it just sets up Cotten’s character for when he disappears for a spell to introduce the film’s protagonist, Jean Peters, which happens after he gets home to Monroe and passes out. The film’s got a fantastic screenplay (from producer Charles Brackett, Walter Resich, and Richard L. Breen), both in terms of plotting and dialogue. Everything contributes to the character development and the reveals until it’s time for the action finale to take over. Great action finale. Oh, and also the obvious but Code acceptable sexuality of the characters.

Anyway, Peters and her husband Max Showalter are on a delayed honeymoon. Showalter works for a breakfast cereal company in marketing and is all about climbing the corporate ladder. Showalter’s annoying as hell and not very good, which almost doesn’t matter as part of the film hinges on him dismissing Peters’s concerns about neighbors Cotten and Monroe (to the point he stops cop Denis O’Dea from interviewing Peters about something important because Showalter’s done hearing about it); unfortunately he never learns from the experience of the film’s events, presumably consigning Peters to living under his dimwitted wanna-be alpha male nonsense for the rest of her life. If Showalter were good or the part was self-aware, Niagara might be a lot better.

But it’s still really good. Peters is a great protagonist, even if she’s rarely the lead—after Monroe’s introduction at the beginning, things shift to Peters and Showalter, then back to Cotten, then Monroe, then Cotten, then Monroe. The third act is a little more even but it’s so action-packed, there’s not much for Peters to do. She shows empathy for Cotten in the first act, getting involved in he and Monroe’s unhealthy—but not initially clear how unhealthy—relationship so even though she’s the protagonist, it’s all about her perspective on them. As for her and Showalter and their delayed honeymoon, outside him being a dipshit in general, he doesn’t show any interest in anything until he gets to suck up to a local Shredded Wheat vice president, a perfectly obnoxious Don Wilson. Wilson and wife Lurene Tuttle are another of Niagara’s small successes, both in terms of writing and performance. They’re great accessories for Peters and Showalter as Peters comes to understand the thriller she’s found herself in.

Lots of gorgeous filmmaking. Hathaway’s got a great feel for the locations, both the town and the falls; he, MacDonald, editor Barbara McLean, and composer Sol Kaplan do fantastic work. McLean’s cutting gets more impressive than the still wondrous photography in the second half, as the thriller aspect replaces the Monroe ogling.

Monroe’s really good, Peters is really good, Cotten’s real, real good. They more than make up for Showalter being, at best, wishy-washy. O’Dea’s fine as the cop. Allan’s effective as the beefcake boy toy. Russell Collins is the motel owner and he’s very distinctive. He’s fine—he doesn’t have much to do—but Hathaway treats him like there’s always something more to his story. It provides some nice texture.

Niagara only runs ninety minutes and every one of them is effectively used. It’s a very substantial ninety minutes. The only thing wrong in it is Showalter, for multiple reasons, but the film successfully works around him (at one point it feels like everyone’s just ignoring him). It’s an excellent showcase for its leads, the filmmakers, and the Technicolor process.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Henry Hathaway; written by Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch, and Richard L. Breen; director of photography, Joseph MacDonald; edited by Barbara McLean; music by Sol Kaplan; costume designer, Dorothy Jeakins; produced by Brackett; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Marilyn Monroe (Rose Loomis), Joseph Cotten (George Loomis), Jean Peters (Polly Cutler), Max Showalter (Ray Cutler), Denis O’Dea (Inspector Starkey), Richard Allan (Patrick), Don Wilson (Mr. J.C. Kettering), Lurene Tuttle (Mrs. Kettering), and Russell Collins (Mr. Qua).


Naked Alibi (1954, Jerry Hopper)

The first half hour of Naked Alibi–the film runs just under ninety minutes so the entire first third–is separate from the remainder. Set in a small city (shot on the backlot, but rather well thanks to Russell Metty’s glorious photography), chief of detectives Sterling Hayden has been getting a lot of heat over police brutality. The bleeding hearts just don’t understand how hard it can be. Not even after someone starts killing cops.

The film is really, really spare. There’s not just no fat on the script, there’s not always enough meat. So there’s no reconciliation between police commissioner Fay Roope riding Hayden for police brutality–even though Hayden’s tactics appear just to be due process and self-defense–with Hayden’s inability to catch the cop killers. Hayden’s got a prime suspect–local baker Gene Barry, who threatened the lives of each of the murdered cops. But Barry says he’s a good guy and everyone (meaning wife Marcia Henderson and lawyer Paul Levitt) agrees.

Of course, Barry’s exceptionally suspicious, has no real alibi for the murders–it’s never clear why his alibi is Naked–and appears to be at least psychologically abusive to Henderson. It turns out she’s the luckier of his two ladies, but more on that development in a bit.

The first half hour introduces Barry, introduces Hayden, introduces the cops, kills the cops, starts Hayden’s investigation, fires Hayden, brings in P.I. Don Haggerty to assist Hayden in an off-the-books investigation, and ends with Barry running off to the Mexican border to destress.

Barry’s not just suspicious, he’s violent, controlling, and manipulative. Though the manipulative stuff doesn’t really work because he’s not coy about it. He manipulates through violence and enforced control. The script asks way too much in the way of disbelief suspension. Director Hopper is no help with it either. For whatever reason, he can’t direct interiors. He does the most boring composition inside. Outside, Naked Alibi looks great. Inside, it’s a complete yawn.

Worse, he’s got forceful performances from both Barry and Hayden and doesn’t showcase them in those boring interior scenes either. There’s all this energy present, with Hopper seemingly disinterested in framing it well.

When the film gets to the Mexican border, there are big changes. The exterior shots are even better–Tijuana stands in for “Border City”–with these deeply composed shots. Metty’s photography gets even better and the script slows down enough and focuses; it doesn’t matter if Hopper doesn’t direct exposition or banter well.

Gloria Grahame plays a nightclub singer who Barry romances, terrorizes, and physically abuses. No longer trying to play evil but nice and instead just evil, Barry is terrifying. Especially since things never go Hayden’s way. He’s not particularly good at the detective stuff and he’s got the street smarts of a three-card monte mark. He’s just right.

But Grahame ends up being the closest thing to a main character. She gets the most character development, which Grahame ends up essaying far better than the film deserves. By the end, the script’s caught up with her and holds her back, but for a while, Grahame transcends the spare, sometimes lazy material.

The filmmaking and acting make Naked Alibi. The script’s got a decent enough detective investigation, but very little else. The finale is–while extremely effective and beautifully shot–a complete disappointment. There’s been no character development on Hayden. He’s not a cipher, he’s a blank. Hayden brings a lot of righteousness and enough hints of charm to it, but there’s nothing there. Whether he’s succeeding, failing, or bleeding to death, Hayden’s always exactly the same.

Grahame’s got stuff going on under the surface, Barry’s just getting more and more dangerous. And there’s really no one else. There are some recurring supporting cast members–Chuck Connors, Billy Chapin–but they don’t have much to do. Naked Alibi doesn’t need them to do much. It’s got one thing; reveal Barry enough Hayden can arrest him.

Things get really good about an hour in and it seems like Naked Alibi might add up in the end. Plotting overcomes problematic scene details. Then the finale disappoints, even though it features Hopper’s best direction (of an action sequence anyway), and is beautifully shot.

Still, it’s an engaging noir, with good (but unfortunately uneven thanks to the script and Hopper) performances. And it’s got that Russell Metty photography. Hopper’s direction doesn’t deserve that photography.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jerry Hopper; screenplay by Lawrence Roman, based on a story by J. Robert Bren and Gladys Atwater; director of photography, Russell Metty; edited by Al Clark; produced by Ross Hunter; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Sterling Hayden (Joe Conroy), Gloria Grahame (Marianna), Gene Barry (Al Willis), Marcia Henderson (Helen Willis), Don Haggerty (Matthews), Billy Chapin (Petey), Max Showalter (Det. Lt. Parks), Chuck Connors (Capt. Kincaide), Stuart Randall (Chief Babcock), Paul Levitt (Frazier), and Fay Roope (Commissioner O’Day).


Scroll to Top