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Color Me Desperate
'Niagara' and 'Black Widow' each blazed a different trail to a heart of darkness.
Now Streaming: In response to Cinerama and 3-D, 20th Century Fox developed the anamorphic CinemaScope lens series to make their own widescreen pictures that would lure people back into theaters, releasing The Robe in September 1953 and then expanding the process to more major productions on its slate.
Released nine months before, in January 1953, Niagara was shot in the usual aspect ratio, yet expertly photographed by Joseph MacDonald in lovely, radiant color that belies its heart of darkness, quickly revealed in its opening sequence. Against the cascading falls, Joseph Cotten looks stern and angry as George, who stalks around a viewing area of the famed honeymoon location, voicing dialogue that sounds anguished, even doomed.
We know there definitely must be something wrong with George as he returns to his motel cabin, because his wife Rose is lying in bed, and she pretends to be asleep as soon as he opens the door. And Rose is played by Marilyn Monroe, so there definitely must be something wrong with him.
In the early 1950s, American history tells us that all husbands wanted a bombshell wife and, evidently, all husbands and wives slept in separate beds.
Written by Charles Brackett, remembered best for his 16 collaborations with Billy Wilder, and Richard L. Breen and Walter Reisch, Niagara is one of the relatively few films shot in color during the 1950s that were later identified as film noir. Watching the film for the first time recently, I was struck by the quality of the script -- smart dialogue, intricate plotting, solid characterizations, surprising twists -- and director Henry Hathaway's visual storytelling.
My sole trip to Niagara Falls -- with my parents, not on a honeymoon -- came in the early 1990s, and it was a glorious time, since I'd long dreamed of visiting in person. Watching Niagara brought back a lot of those good memories, which also makes it an ideal location in which to set a murderous plot of homicidal intentions and suicidal impulse.
Marilyn Monroe is sensational; she finds her way through the dialogue in convincing fashion, shading between emotions that demonstrate a great range. The film itself is all about how appearances can be deceiving, and I liked the idea that her character knew this as well, and used that to her desperate advantage as she acts deceitfully toward her husband, seeking a permanent way out of their union.
Much of the picture plays like a quality melodrama; when it turns toward the more criminal aspects of the plot, the pace quickens and the suspense heightens until things boil over. One scene in particular is noteworthy for its great use of location, angles, pacing, and shadows to portray a very noir demise.
By the way, do not adjust your television: the trailer below is in black and white, for some reason. [The Criterion Channel]
Now Streaming: Released in October 1954, Black Widow fell under the Fox mandate to make more CinemaScope pictures, though it could just as easily have been made in the standard aspect ratio and in black and white.
The vibrant colors, though, captured by cinematographer Charles G. Clarke, bolster the first half of the picture, which is very non-noir. Written and produced by Nunnally Johnson, who was making only his second feature as director, that first half establishes Van Heflin as successful Broadway producer Peter Denver.
With his wife Iris (Gene Tierney) away to care for her mother, Denver invites Nancy Ordway, an aspiring writer he's met at a party, out for dinner. He keeps things cordial and chaste, and doesn't think much about it, yet as time goes on, he becomes more and more friendly with her, until he invites her to spend her daytime hours at his apartment with, of course, his maid around constantly, so that she can write without interruption.
One day, she hangs herself in his apartment. What?
Nunnally Johnson's screenplay sets up events like logs placed in a gradually narrowing flume that ends in Nancy's death. Each of the events are suspicious only in retrospect, but when investigated by NYPD Lt. Bruce (George Raft), all signs point to murder at the hand of the hapless Peter Denver.
A hapless character named Peter? Of course I want to see what happens!
Peter Denver spends the rest of the picture desperately evading the police so he can gather evidence that will prove his innocence. Like Niagara, the pace quickens in the second half of the story, and noir-ish aspects become more readily apparent.
Both films are built around desperate people who become desperate and graduate to deception on a perilous scale. Both films are enhanced by their colorful palettes, which are used in contrapuntal fashion; the colors deceive the eye into ignoring the less palatable impulses that run rampant beneath, like rivers of desperate deception. [The Criterion Channel]