Having recently realised that I’ve loved almost every Billy Wilder film I’ve seen, I’ve been seeking out more of his work. It suddenly dawned on me earlier today that I owned one of his films which I hadn’t seen for a few years but remembered fondly. That film was The Seven Year Itch. I first saw the romantic comedy about five years ago and it had been on my shelf ever since. Unfortunately for my memory and for my love of the film’s director, I’d remembered it as a better film than I actually think it is.
The Seven Year Itch is based on the Broadway play of the same name and stars Tom Ewell as Richard Sherman, a slightly awkward man on the cusp of middle age. An abject worrier and daydreamer with an overactive imagination, Sherman sends his wife and young son off to Maine for the summer in order to escape the New York heat. When returning from work that night he meets a beautiful young woman (Marilyn Monroe) in the hallway of his building and begins to have thoughts that belie his faithful and honest nature.
Although not without its charms, The Seven Year Itch lacks the humour of The Apartment and the cheek of Some Like It Hot. It treads a careful line, seemingly afraid of the censor’s scissors and fizzles without a spark of chemistry between the two leads. I wasn’t particularly keen on Richard Sherman’s frequent external monologue. I appreciate how necessary it was to promote his thoughts and feelings but wonder if an overdubbed internal monologue might have better suited. This would have allowed him to continue when his co-star was on screen with him and perhaps inject a few laughs into the proceedings. As it was, I found the film quite dry. The idea behind the film is a sound one and there can be few capable of testing the seven year itch more than Marilyn Monroe but the outcome lacks élan.
Tom Ewell appears to be an accomplished actor and played the role on stage for many years but against Monroe he lacks edginess. He’s a little too calm and introverted and I couldn’t help but wonder how Jack Lemmon would have performed in the role. Although not a huge fan, he was more than solid and was especially strong in the numerous daydream sequences. Marilyn Monroe equally struggles at times and as an actor, this is not her strongest role but she plays her dumb blonde character well. What’s charming is how she carries off being unaware of the male attention she attracts. In one scene Sherman literally attempts to mount her while both fall off a piano stool. He apologises telling her “This has never happened before” to which she replies, nonplussed, “Funny. It happens to me all the time” and carries on with her evening. Monroe seems more at home as the film progresses and suits her character to a tee.
The film is perhaps most famous for one of the defining images of the twentieth century, the famous dress billowing over a subway gate. Shot both on the New York streets at 52nd Street and Lexington Avenue and then on a soundstage, the scene is enshrined in the minds of our species. The full length shot of Monroe isn’t actually used in the finished film but rather two floor to thigh shots are used instead. Even so, the image is alluring even now, nearly sixty years on. Monroe’s sexuality plays a large part in her role, as it did with many she played. Her character’s lack of shame and embarrassment only adds to that of Sherman’s and she displays her body in a number of seat squirming outfits and poses.
Billy Wilder’s direction is competent but not his most stylish. His camera moves about Sherman’s small apartment with ease, thus giving a sense of space when in fact there is little. He also manages to manoeuvre in such a way as to not make the room feel cavernous but rather maintains a hot, sticky, hemmed in environment that’s crucial to the plot. There are a couple of instances of double exposure which aid the daydream scenes and both work excellently. He’s also of course responsible for the bellowing dress scene and deserves credit for helping to create an image which helped to define a woman and perhaps an era. Wilder’s script is functional but not as witty as his best. There are some good lines but I’ve come to expect more from him as a screenwriter.
Overall the film doesn’t really do anything wrong, it’s just a little safe. I never laughed but watched early scenes with a smile. By the climax though, the smile had turned to a look of stern boredom. I wasn’t charmed by the movie and I wanted to be. I enjoyed the set up and some of the delivery but will have to look elsewhere for my next great Billy Wilder movie.
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