Niagara Falls V – A Hundred Clichés

Rose Loomis, early summer 1952

A postcard on which just two sentences have been scribbled serves as a messenger of doom in a key scene in Niagara (1953). This film noir was shot during Niagara Falls’ heyday as the ultimate romantic holiday destination, especially for newlyweds. Niagara Falls was Honeymoon Capital of the World. Virtually all the elements that make up the mythology surrounding the falls come together in this film. The waterfalls are majestically depicted, as are all the viewpoints and attractions. Above all, the swirling water is presented as a source of unprecedented passions. Love and death go hand-in-hand and ultimately lead to destruction.

The film centres on traumatised war veteran George Loomis and his much younger, sensual wife Rose. They spend their holiday in Niagara, but the man is tormented by his past and doubts about his wife’s sincerity. When he finds a ticket in her pocket for the Scenic Tunnel, a tunnel carved into the rock face that leads behind Horseshoe Falls, he decides to shadow her.

At Table Rock House – the place where Ayano Tokumasu would later meet her end – Rose Loomis enters the souvenir shop. When her husband enters moments later, she hides and indicates with a nod to another visitor who her husband is. This stranger scribbles something on a card, puts it back in the rack and follows George Loomis into the lift to the tunnel. Rose takes the card out of the rack and the camera, accompanied by surging violin music, zooms in on the message: ‘If everything OK you’ll hear the Bell Tower play our song – See you in Chicago.’ The card reveals the plot and how George Loomis has been tricked. Rose exits the shop, leaving her husband in the murderous hands of her lover.

In the film, all the clichés about Niagara Falls and film noir tumble over each other with careless abandon. In 1953 that was apparently still permissible – unburdened by the cynicism or irony with which filmmakers have approached clichés over the last 20 years. This makes it a refreshing film to watch, even today. Furthermore, we also witness the birth of one of the most famous clichés from popular culture. Niagara was the first time that 26-year-old Marilyn Monroe appeared as a platinum blonde femme fatale. The role of Rose Loomis would determine the course of her later career. Critics praised her as a new world wonder, alongside Niagara Falls. The original film trailer declared: ‘Niagara and Marilyn Monroe, the two most electrifying sites in the world!’

More than 60 years later, American photographer Alec Soth (1969) was inspired by the film starring Monroe to visit Niagara Falls. “I went to Niagara for the same reason as the honeymooners and suicide jumpers… the relentless thunder of the Falls just calls for big passion,” he said of his motivation. The result was a series of photographs showing the grim side of Niagara Falls – as a holiday destination in decline.

The waterfalls in his photographs are surrounded by desolate parking lots and motels, populated by drab teenage mothers, youngsters in tracksuits and bridal couples in ill-fitting wedding clothes. A small ray of hope can be detected in a handful of portraits of couples who, in all their worldliness and ugliness, truly love each other. This despite an absence of big passion, which was extinguished long ago. Soth also photographed love letters, which he persuaded residents and visitors to give him. Even these read more like suicide notes. Death is never far away in Niagara.

Is this the real Niagara – or: what’s left of it? Has the once sublime now made way for the oh so banal? According to writer and semiotician Umberto Eco, it does not have to be that way. In an essay on the classic film Casablanca – a grandiose accumulation of clichés and references to other films – he notes that in the very midst of these clichés, it is possible for the sublime to reveal itself once again:

‘Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us. For we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion. Just as the height of pain may encounter sensual pleasure, and the height of perversion border on mystical energy, so too the height of banality allows us to catch a glimpse of the sublime.’

– Jörg Colberg, ‘A conversation with Alec Soth’, Conscientious Extended, 15 August 2006
– Umberto Eco, ‘Casablanca, or: the clichés are having a ball’, in Sonia Maasik & Jack Solomon (eds), Signs of Life in the USA: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, 1994, p. 260-264, Bedford Books
– Henry Hathaway (director), Charles Brackett (producer), Charles Brackett, Richard L Breen & Walter Reisch (writers), Niagara (film), 1953, 20th Century Fox
– Alec Soth, Niagara, 2006, Steidl & Partners + Gagosian Gallery

Excerpt from: Raymond Frenken, ‘Pictures from the Brink of Love and Death. Niagara Falls’, in: Objects in Mirror. The Imagination of the American Landscape, 2012, design and editing by Hans Gremmen, published by Fw:books, produced and co-published by Fotodok, distributed by Idea Books, ISBN 978-94-90119-15-7