The Seven-Year Itch

The Seven Year Itch. 20th Century Fox 1955.
The Seven Year Itch. 20th Century Fox 1955.

Before watching the movie:

If AFI hasn’t done a countdown of iconic movie images yet, it’s probably on their to-do list. The one thing anybody remembers about this movie is probably in the top five, if not the number one.

What’s this film actually about, if not Marylin Monroe’s antigravity dress? I recall vaguely from a few synopses something about a man who’s bored with his marriage and strongly tempted by Monroe’s character. At least this poster has him standing nearby with his attention diverted by her, even if he’s not the focus.

I’m still trying to figure out how to describe Billy Wilder. So far all I’ve come up with is “gets it right.”

After watching the movie:

Like many Manhattan men, Richard Sherman just sent his wife and son to summer somewhere cooler. He’s determined to spend his bachelor summer as a responsible, married man, with no booze, cigarettes, or girls. Then a knockout moves in upstairs. Richard finds himself completely lacking in self-control around the bubbly innocent who candidly describes how having the plumber rescue her from being stuck in her bathtub was embarrassing because she din’t have any toenail polish on and doesn’t understand why most men ask her to marry them in less than a day. Richard loses himself in his neurotic conflict between pursuing her and being faithful, and feverishly imagines worst-case scenarios about being found out in something that isn’t what it looks like… yet.

It’s no surprise to me that this was based on a play. It has a stageplay feel to it, from the endless monologuing Richard does so that the audience understands what’s going on in his head, to the limited settings, to the arm’s-length feel Richard’s Mittyesque fantasies have. Lengthy internal monologues don’t work in film, unless Billy Wilder directs them, apparently. The editing let me feel like I was watching a play with the intimacy and variety that cinema camerawork can allow for.

Interestingly, Tom Ewell was cast over Wilder’s first choice of Walter Matthau because the studio didn’t want to risk an unknown. Who’s heard of Tom Ewell today? On the other hand, in hindsight, Richard Sherman isn’t the type Matthau got known for. I think he’d have a tendency to play the role gruffer and more worldly, which is exactly what the role does not need. Maybe if he’d gotten the part, Matthau’s career would have gone in a different direction. Instead of being the straight man, he might have roles more like his frequent partner Jack Lemmon.

I think that this story works perfectly as a man trying to make a decision, powered by the “will he or won’t he” suspense. The play it was based on was about an affair with actual adultery, which had to be excised to pass Hollywood censorship. I’m not sure the moral dilemma would be as strong in that case. The comedy and drama both come directly from the fact that he hasn’t yet, and has no idea if he will or won’t. While I’m sure the lack of censorship on the stage made a more… interesting show in other respects, I don’t see it being as compelling. Once again, imposing limits forces the artist to improve.

 

Watch this movie: for a good laugh pushing the envelope of decency.

Don’t watch this movie: expecting more than Monroe’s legs.

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