The Seven Year Itch, 1955.
Directed by Billy Wilder.
Starring Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell.
Married man, Sherman, has to contend with the gorgeous woman upstairs when his family are away over the summer.
That shot. A train whirrs past beneath the vent and wind blows her dress up as she struggles to hold it down. She doesn’t move away from the revealing situation and instead tells he male companion, “isn’t it delicious?”. Her white, pleated dress design and platinum blonde hair means that this is Marilyn Monroe. A crowd had gathered, between 52nd and 53rd Street in New York City. Billy Wilder is in production of The Seven Year Itch, and photographer Sam Shaw is snapping the icon of the 1950’s. This became the moment that became a 26ft tall statue by Seward Johnson in Chicago, California and New Jersey, in Forever Marilyn. It is also the unforgettable, definitive portrait of this gorgeous, tragic figure.
But the film is not built around this single scene. It is merely a fleeting moment in the 1955 hit, The Seven Year Itch. A perfect companion to Wilder’s The Apartment, it is set within the hustle and bustle of NYC. Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell) bids adieu to his wife and child, the scamp, as he prepares himself for a summer of working in the hottest month of the year. Unlike the gawking fellow men at Grand Central, Sherman intends to give up smoking and drinking (as the doctors warned him) and, under no circumstances, will he be lured by the foxy young women who still lurk in the city. That is until a girl (Monroe) moves in upstairs. A comedy from the Native American opening sequence, The Seven Year Itch directly comments on that seven-year point in a marriage whereby men are easily drawn to another. Primarily shot within his dinky flat, it is no surprise that this is based on a play penned by George Axelrod. But it is Billy Wilder’s witty direction that cuts away to enhance jokes and winks to the cinema audience throughout. Like The Apartment, Sherman is a bit of a rogue, not unlike Jack Lemmon’s extra-marital-affair facilitator C.C.Baxter. His sleazy efforts to woo Monroe are pitched perfectly. In fact, had Lemmon played the part, he’d have come across as too likable. Richard Sherman, justifying his actions throughout, aspires to be a good man – but he doesn’t have the balls to stick by his guns.
This is what makes The Seven Year Itch so intriguing. Every character is a fascinating mess of conflicting characteristics. Monroe’s ditzy blonde melts our hearts, but she hints at a knowing awareness of her actions. She teases and lures this sucker on – but he is quite happy to be dragged across the living room floor. After those opening moments, as Sherman bids farewell to his family, we rarely see his wife (except in imaginary dreams, conversations and a brief phone call) so her decision to leave the city may be because of his clear wandering eyes. I feel assured that, though his constant paranoia and worry may be relatable, he doesn’t come across as the strongest husband or most supportive of fathers. His constant whining seems to postpone his posting of a paddle from the very start of the film.
But the casting of Monroe is inspired. She knocks your socks off. Her cute coquettishness is endlessly fascinating, and her faux naivety makes you putty in her hands. When she’s not on-screen, we miss her. When she is on-screen, we know exactly how Sherman feels. It’s a simple concept – the young broad seducing the married man. But the subtle characteristics and games played by these two key roles are what humanise them – and make us recognise them.
It’s not as complex as Wilder’s Monroe masterpiece, Some Like it Hot. And doesn’t share the same adorable nature of the forever-lonely lead in The Apartment, but this is one to watch. It’s cheeky and telling. It’s back-to-back jokes with a sure talking-point to begin when the credits close. The Seven Year Itch is a re-watchable classic, and one of the most important roles in Monroe’s career.
Today marks the end of the Marilyn Monroe season at the BFI, but many more terrific films are still available to see! An Orson Welles season – Orson Welles: the Great Disruptor – and an extended run of The Long Good Friday and The Third Man are still playing. Head to the site here, to book your tickets!
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Simon Columb – Follow me on Twitter