Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Seven Year Itch (1955)

So the Fox Collection decided to add this title when they already have a Marilyn Monroe selection, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and you probably can’t help but wonder why (like me). Well, it has some degree of artistic merit, being a talky comedy directed by none other than Billy Wilder. And the film’s title added a commonly used phrase to the world of psychology, not to mention marriage counseling. And then there’s the matter of a brief scene, occurring about ¾ of the way through, in which Monroe steps over a subway grate and lets the hot air billow up her white dress as she futilely tries to hold it down. Oh, right… that. The defense rests.

Actually, that scene isn’t at all the way we remember it (it’s not shot wide, so that full, iconic image isn’t really in the film), and, despite a few scenes at an office and some outside fantasy sequences, it’s really just  a filmed play, set almost entirely inside the NY apartment of Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell). Not necessarily a bad thing, though; the play was written by George Axelrod and is chock full of witty banter, running one-liners, and some surprisingly poignant observations about the male libido and the challenges of a monogamous relationship.

But Richard is anything but the stereotypical, libidinous male. In fact, he’s a mess of insecurities, exacerbated by a wildly active imagination that borders on extreme paranoia. When his wife and son lave NYC for the summer to go to camp, he considers sowing a few wild oats – after all, summer is a long time. But then, his conscience takes over, and he trades in his martinis and cigarettes for visits to the vegetarian restaurant and 9:30 bedtimes.

All that changes when he lays eyes on the “Girl” upstairs, a temp tenant who couldn’t be nicer – and that’s the problem. When she accidentally knocks a tomato plant onto his porch, he uses the happy accident as an entre for conversation, a drink and perhaps, something else? The night wears on, with lots of talking and soul-bearing, until Richard propositions her on a piano bench. She innocently brushes it off, but he is wracked with guilt, even confessing his near-sin to a psychiatrist. But he imagines the Mrs, doing precisely he same thing up in Maine, and so he invites the Girl out to the movies – more guilt, more paranoia. By now he is so torn apart that he spends the night taping up a paddle to his son, practically spilling out all his secrets to his wife’s imagined lover, and finally confiding to the Girl that he loves his betrothed wholly and completely, and will get on the next bus north to be with her immediately.

Of course, it was a no-brainer to cast Monroe in the key part of “The Girl,” continuing her run of dumb-blonde roles that would continue for the duration of her career. But as good as she is, Itch is really Richard’s story – at times it’s practically a one-man show – as we listen to his thoughts, memories and interior monologues, and laugh in recognition of his manic neuroses. Tom Ewell reprises his role from the Broadway run, and he is pitch perfect. As a non-movie star he brings credibility to the role; his everyman looks and demeanor function as a fitting entry point for the (male) audience, but he still manages to score empathy and compassion just as effectively as any seasoned star.

And then there’s director Billy Wilder, who surely deserves credit for keeping the proceedings light and bouncy, despite the potentially dark topic matter. But the director was not entirely satisfied with the angle. As you figured out from the synopsis, Richard does not have an affair, a necessary outcome given the Hays Code constraints which were in full effect in 1955. Wilder, in a 70s interview, stated that such censorship turned the film “superficial,” essentially emasculating and sapping it of any potential import.

I’m not so sure. Sure, actually boinked Bo Derek in 10, but that film was more of a serio-comedy. Generally speaking, successfully infidelity tends to be disastrous for light fare, as it was for The Woman In Red and Blame It On Rio. But the bumbling attempts at it tend to be far funnier, as it was in one of my favorite Neil Simon films, Last of the Red Hot Lovers, a film that actually improves upon Itch’s idea simply by multiplying it threefold, thereby reducing the claustrophobia just a bit.

Mentioning Simon, I can discern how much of this must have been a heavy influence on the playwright’s early works. Itch makes great use of the recurring comedic motif (“Hair was longer then,” “Wish I was dead”), which would become a Wilder staple, particularly in The Apartment, and it explores the fundamental differences in the relationship needs between men and women, something Simon does, can only do, through comedy. Side splitting, raucous comedy.

On balance, entertaining and often thoughtful. Come for Marilyn, stay for Ewell. And laugh regardless.

                       Rating:  ***1/2


[Oh, and there are also a few funny inside jokes, such as Mrs. Sherman’s claim that her husband dreams in Cinemascope (what the film was shot in), a scene which parodies the beach lovemaking in From Here to Eternity (probably the first), and the line that the Girl in the shower looks like Marilyn Monroe. Oh, no they didn’t!]

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