The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Wednesday, May 28, 2003
YE OLDE MOVIE REVIEWS: Niagara (Henry Hathaway, 1953): A strange, engrossing nightmare of a movie, starring Jean Peters and Casey Adams as a couple taking a delayed honeymoon at Niagara Falls. The husband is a vapid salesman, and Adams' deliberately grating performance brings to mind a young Don Knotts. Later they encounter another couple who seem to be exactly what you'd expect Peters and Adams to be 20 years down the road: He's jocular and annoying; she's an anchor in common sense; both are all surface, no depth.

But Peters does have depth. She's caught between that potential future and another one, represented by a third couple, played brilliantly by Joseph Cotton and Marilyn Monroe. These two are nothing but depth -- desperate love, seething hatred, rage, despair, madness. They haunt Peters, and not just figuratively: By the end of the picture one of them is, in effect if not in fact, a ghost that only Peters can see.

All this is cast against a Hitchcockian plot and Joe MacDonald's dreamlike photography, fusing the shadows of noir, the bright shades of Technicolor, and the natural beauty of the falls. It's the best Hathaway movie I've seen, probably because it isn't especially meaningful to talk about "Hathaway movies": The most important creative forces behind this film appear to be Monroe, Cotton, Peters, MacDonald, and Charles Brackett, best known as Billy Wilder's writing partner in the '30s and '40s, who here serves as producer and co-screenwriter.

Morocco (Josef von Sternberg, 1930): Marlene Dietrich's first American film. The photography and the soundscape are beautiful. Aside from one late scene in a desert bar and one bit of dialogue in a dining room, the hackneyed script is not. And while Dietrich is fine as a singer caught between two suitors in Arab Africa, Gary Cooper is even stiffer and duller than usual, wrecking any chance that the film will rise very far above its story. There's no particular reason why this should be remembered as a "classic," yet it is; I suspect it's famous mostly for one priceless pre-Code moment, when Marlene gives another woman a sudden Sapphic kiss.

Resisting Enemy Interrogation (First Motion Picture Unit, 1944): A real oddity: a military training film from the Second World War, dramatizing the ways German captors might attempt to extract information from their prisoners. It's not a documentary as the term is usually used today, though it was nominated for an Oscar in the documentary category. Instead, it's a surprisingly well-crafted yarn about a crashed crew tricked into revealing important information.

Here's the odd part. The story delves so deeply into the nitty-gritty of the interrogators' methods, watching as they piece together their puzzle, that it effectively becomes a police procedural shot from the German point of view. Any Law & Order junkie will probably catch herself unwittingly cheering for the Nazis, a problem which presumably didn't afflict the picture's original audience.


posted by Jesse 7:50 PM
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