The Seven Year Itch

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No matter how mundane or commonplace the subject matter, Billy Wilder always seems able to transform his stories into fascinating, and quite often humorous, social commentary. This is as true with his 1955 comedy The Seven Year Itch as it is with any of his films. Photographed in Cinemascope and starring Marilyn Monroe, The Seven Year Itch might at first glance appear to be just your typical 1950s piece of fluff, but Wilder infuses it with something a bit more.

Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell) is a typical New York business man. He works in publishing, and is married to Helen (Evelyn Keyes) with a young son. Like most New York families, they split up during the summer. Richard stays in the city to work, while Helen and the boy go up to Maine. Richard vows to be good while his family is away, to stay off cigarettes and alcohol like his doctors told him, and not to mess around with girls like the rest of his male counterparts. His resolve is tested though when he discovers that a beautiful young woman (Marilyn Monroe) is staying in the apartment above his for the summer.

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What Wilder ingeniously shows is how what we imagine of ourselves and others is often far more extreme than reality. The film deals a lot in Richard’s fantasies, as we see him anxiously pacing around his empty apartment or office struggling with his insecurities over how his wife and others perceive him. What frequently happens is the camera pans over and there’s a dissolve into an enactment of Richard’s fantasies, which are sometimes exaggerated representations of feelings he or others probably actually have, or they are completely made up. What’s so great about how this is staged and shot and is that sometimes Richard will be shown passively taking in versions of himself and people he knows acting out the scenarios in his head. He is helpless to stop his overactive and nervous imagination, and this is shown onscreen through his stationary position in the frame while his fantasies are incredibly active (and almost always ridiculous).

This not only gets at an important truth about humanity, but the gender politics of the time. Richard is pressured into seeing himself a certain way, and can’t quite understand that he and others around him don’t exactly fit the social types that they “should” be seen as. Furthermore, he gets trapped into thinking of others the way society thinks he should, but his overactive and neurotic mind can’t really fix on just one interpretation of anyone’s character. Of course, this is all played for laughs in the film, and while I wouldn’t call this Wilder’s funniest it definitely has its moments. Overall, it’s just really interesting to see how Wilder constructs these fantasies of Richard’s and to see the insane amount of social commentary he packs into each and every one.

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The film is incredibly biased towards Richard’s character. In fact, I’m not quite sure that Marilyn Monroe even “exists” in the film at all. She’s never gives a proper name, and it being a comedy, the audience can excuse the absurdities the plot goes through to get Monroe’s character to interact with Richard. The fact that Richard’s fantasies usually are so clearly marked visually maybe refutes this, but it seems that Monroe really is only there to fan the fire of Richard’s crazy fantasies, and might herself be another fantasy. This is until one great scene where both Richard and Monroe are in his apartment, and the camera is cutting back and forth between them isolated in their own frames; if we hadn’t seen the layout of the room previously it would be easy to imagine them in totally different environments. That’s how disconnected they are from each other. They both are having their own inner monologues in voice over, and we hear that Monroe is thinking about totally different things from what Richard imagines. It really shows Monroe’s character as separate from anything Richard imagines of her, even if that is the only real time we get inside her head.

The film was shot in Cinemascope by Milton Krasner (How the West Was Won, All About Eve), which at first might seem like an incongruous choice for a frothy comedy. It makes sense historically, as in the ’50 they were using it to compete with TV, and I’m sure the studio thought it would be worth it with Monroe starring. Like Monroe’s casting, there’s a line in the film that directly explains it, when Richard imagines his wife criticizing him: “Lately you’ve begun to imagine in Cinemascope… with stereophonic sound.” It’s very fitting that the film goes big with Cinemascope, and I also appreciated the rigid control over the color scheme. With the strong teal, red, and yellow, it really made it feel like the summer, but also way more harmonious than New York (or any city) actually is. It definitely contributed to the fantastical nature of the film.

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So far, my review reads as if I’ve seen my next four star movie. Unfortunately, I didn’t actually enjoy the film as entertainment that much. Though I really did appreciate the social commentary and related a lot to what Richard goes through, I also found the actor playing him a bit annoying (he does fine but he’s no Jack Lemmon, guys) and the gender politics the film was gently satirizing getting me down. I do think it’s a brilliant film that says something important, which not all comedies do, but at the same time is sort of anchored in those conceptions that it is satirizing. I don’t want to give away the ending, but it partially validates Richard’s fantasies, which just seemed unlikely to me.

Overall though, I would recommend The Seven Year Itch. Even if you’re just seeing it for that iconic shot of Marilyn, it’s more than worthwhile because of the social commentary and ingenious cinematography that Wilder and company deliver. Nobody can make seemingly simply comedies mean more than him.

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“Oh, wouldn’t you like to know! Maybe it’s Marilyn Monroe!”

Long story short: 3.5/4 stars

For Further Reading:

The New York Times review
The Flickering Myth review
Vanity Fair retrospective

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