Friday, July 13, 2012

The Seven Year Itch

The Seven Year Itch (Billy Wilder, 1955) Another one of those ones that "got away."  Never seen it.  Don't know why.  And yet it's a film of such an iconic nature that inevitably makes it into "movie-clip" shows, maybe I thought there wasn't a need. 

Too bad, because the film has so much more to offer than the shot of Marilyn Monroe's skirt blowing up over a subway grill...much more.  It's just tough to get past that image...all five seconds of it. In fact, the film might be my favorite Billy Wilder film...if it weren't for Sunset Blvd., Ace in the Hole, The Apartment, Double Indemnity, Lost WeekendSome Like It Hot, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (and on and on).  As it is, it's unique among Wilder films (which seem all to be unique) in that it is basically a one-man show, a monologue (which makes Monroe's dominance of it so mysterious...but only proves her power) by Tom Ewell, the bassett-hounded everyman-actor, who played the role on Broadway (900 times over three years).  Ewell wasn't a comedian, he was a serious actor, and his playing of this sexed-up version of Thurber's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," never betrays a need to evoke laughs.  No, he plays it straight, even tragically, and garners belly-laughs.  Even his vast experience with the role contributes to the world-weary quality of his fantasy sequences and the beleaguered "I'm too sexy for this life..." attitude that permeates the performance.

Richard Sherman (Ewell) works for a paperback company that specializes in marketing dull titles with salacious covers.  At the start of a long, hot summer, he sends his wife (Evelyn Keyes) and son (Butch Bernard) to her family in Maine to get them out of the sweltering city of New York.  The vacation offers pastoral pleasures like kayaking, but Sherman is left to sin upstream with the paddle.  He is the perfect domesticated husband, but his "overactive imagination," making him so good at marketing, is a constant battlefield.  However good he might be, giving up smoking ("all those lovely, injurious tars and resins," he sighs), not drinking, eating at health-food restaurants, he still has "urges" to misbehave.

Emphasis on the "Miss," an unnamed upstairs neighbor (Marilyn), model, and frequent guest of her upstairs neighbors, "the interior decorators or something."  "Being good" does not come easy when Sherman has to figure out how to "sell" his company's latest manuscript—a psychological text on the sexual urges of repressed middle-aged males (which to Sherman reads like an auto-erotic-biography).  An office visit from the doctor only confirms what everybody, real or fantasy, has already told him—he's got an overactive imagination (code for libido, and it "breaks out" in nervous tics, itching, scratching and neurosis) and no perspective about his appeal (or lack of it) as a man, seeing every woman in his orbit as an attractive force, and he—brave soul—is a stalwart unmovable object, despite "the girl" hanging over his head from her balcony.

Ewell is amazing, but everybody's good and all the actors are clicking along on all cylinders, with crack comic timing.  Monroe is great, too.  This isn't one of her later "one-note" performances.  Her "girl" is a comic innocent, and Monroe's versatile enough to personify all of Sherman's fantasy versions of her. 

The play is different.  It's not so chaste, and, reportedly, Wilder and Axelrod were frustrated with the restrictions imposed by the Hayes Office.  But what is there is great, with very little slack in pacing, and Ewell's amazing work throughout.  He deserves so much of the credit for making the film as consistently entertaining as it is.  But, as in the film, he's helpless to conquer Monroe's image.

Sadly, neither was she.





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