It Felt Like a Kiss

Philippa Snow on Henry Hathaway’s Niagara (1953)

Henry Hathaway, Niagara, 1953, 35 mm, color, sound, 82 minutes. Rose Loomis (Marilyn Monroe).

A BLONDE IN HOT PINK and a wrap as white as a wrap of pure cocaine steps out into a good-time party on what looks to be a balmy summer night, and sizzles. What she’s looking for is not sex, but a song.

It’s fair, and obvious, to say she looks like sex; she also looks like Marilyn Monroe, this being Henry Hathaway’s Niagara (1953). Her character, Rose Loomis, is marked from the start as liberated, sexually adventurous, and thus imperiled. Rose is living in a cabin at Niagara Falls with George (Joseph Cotten), her husband, and is sleeping with a man named Patrick (Richard Allan). She and Patrick plan to kill George and elope. “Their song,” played by the Rainbow Tower Carillon, will inform her when the deed is done—hence Rose’s monomania about the fateful record she is clutching, Kiss.

“You kinda like that song,” says one male partygoer, teasingly. “There is no other song,” Rose purrs. It is the perfect—or it is the only—answer. Generally, this scene is far less interesting for being hot than for depicting an extremely common, but less commonly depicted, feeling: that of listening to one saccharine pop song on repeat, and knowing that no other song will ever sound as good again. Eventually, the melody is worn out by its repetition so that it no longer casts the same intoxicating spell. Rose Loomis gets so lost in Kiss because it makes her think about her younger lover; once, another love song might have made her think about her husband George. The song remains the same the more it seems to change.

The shock of the sexually exotic or the unfamiliar is a paradox, predictable and cyclical. It lives, dies, and regenerates elsewhere. Niagara knows this, which is why its sweeter and more faithful honeymooning couple, Ray and Polly (Max Showalter and Jean Peters), are represented as both happier and less exciting—ergo less compelling and less cinematic—than their warring neighbors. Up until the Loomis marriage ends in murder, it feels sadomasochistic. George—who violently and jealously destroys her record at that party, in what might be referred to as “a scene” if a woman had made it—first chose his barmaid wife because he loved her hyperbolic fuckability; now he abhors the idea any man might look at her and love the same thing. He implies her sexuality has somehow killed, as if it were an ancient curse, the livestock on his farm. “That dress,” he snarls, “cut down so low in front that you can see her kneecaps . . . She’d like to wear [it] in the middle of the Yankee Stadium.”

In 1953, Monroe was dating her own Yankee, Joe DiMaggio, who reportedly did not like her to wear a skimpy livestock-killer of an outfit, either. He came on-set on The Seven Year Itch (1955) in time to see his then-wife on the subway grate, exposed and gawked at by a crowd. “DiMaggio hadn’t planned on visiting the set that night,” wrote the New York Times. “Ms. Monroe was not happy her husband had shown up . . . Later that night the couple had a screaming fight in their room. The next morning, her hairdresser covered up Ms. Monroe’s bruises with makeup.” Like George Loomis, Joe had signed up for a femme fatale and then grown furious when she did not know how to be an honest wife. He wanted sex in private and control in public: something easier to request from a woman who did not move, both onscreen and off, like a sultry ballad. A promotion for Niagara boasted that the movie had the “longest walk” in cinematic history, with 116 feet of film devoted to one shot of Monroe. What it did not say was that the shot was the one that showed her fleeing death, and not succeeding.

Rose’s gravest crime, aside from having an affair, was being too alive. The penalty for this in 1950s Hollywood was death. A classic trope is that Americans are comfortable with cinematic violence in a way they are not comfortable with cinematic sex. This might be true: It’s also true that Marilyn Monroe’s eroticism is an act of violence, a distortion of the natural and expected heterosexual order so extreme as to appear destructive. It is no coincidence that other than the “longest walk,” the film’s publicity drew mostly on the similarities between its leading lady and the Falls—the tagline calls both girl and monument a “raging torrent of emotion even nature can’t control,” which would be truer if Rose Loomis didn’t end up killed, and so controlled, by George, and truer still if Marilyn had not been killed by downer circumstances nine years later.

Niagara Falls is not one of the Seven Wonders. Monroe, who died just shy of sixty years ago, and who remains as ubiquitous and recognizable as a Coca Cola bottle, might be. Like the Falls, she also happened to be fatal, in addition to fatalistic. It’s reported that civilian suicide rates in New York climbed for a full week after Marilyn’s death. “If the most wonderful, beautiful thing in the world has nothing to live for,” Gay Talese reported reading in one of the suicide notes, “then neither must I.” There is, in other words, no other song like Marilyn Monroe—no melody as sweet, as singular. It is amazing she’s endured, and seemed so wonderfully impossible, so goddamned long.

Niagara recently ran as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s series “Modern Matinees: Considering Joseph Cotten.”