The Seven Year Itch (1955)

Title: The Seven Year Itch (1955)
Director: Billy Wilder
Writers: George Axelrod and Billy Wilder
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This incredibly unique film starts with a map of Manhattan and the narrator (as though working on a nature program) describes the Manhattan Indian tribes (read Native American?) and their yearly routine of sending their wives and children to cooler pastures during the hot summer months. Fast forward to the 1950’s (or Present Day as they say) and the men of Manhattan are still sending their wives and children to Maine to beat the heat of the city. The men in their business suits remain behind in the hot city to make money. In a very busy train station we meet our hero Richard Sherman (Tommy Ewell) sending his wife Helen (Evelyn Keyes) and his rather heinous son Ricky (Tom Nolan) dressed up as a space man (read: intergalactic monster) away on a little holiday. Richard says goodbye to them after being told by his wife that he is not to smoke or drink and that she will be calling him that night at 10pm to check in. As he leaves the station Richard is horrified that all the other husbands in suits having said goodbye to their families for the summer are already trailing behind a beautiful woman walking blissfully out of the station. He can’t believe that these men appear to have no self-control. Richard will spend a lot of time talking to himself, and making sure that he doesn’t break any of his wife’s rules.

Before returning home from the station he stops at a vegetarian restaurant (determined not to eat badly) and discusses the benefits of nudist camps with his elderly waitress. After his meal of a Soybean Hamburger with a side of French-fried Soybeans, Soybean sherbet, Peppermint tea and a sauerkraut juice on the rocks to start, he returns to his empty apartment and instead of making a drink and lighting a cigarette he opts to spend the evening on his porch drinking a raspberry soda and reading a proof for a book he is trying to publish. Richard works at a publishing house that sells novels in drugstores (pharmacies) with catchy titles and salacious covers (the kind of covers that make Louisa M. Alcott’s Little Women look racy.) The book he is going to read is an anthropological analysis of the male, Man and the Unconscious, written by a psychoanalyst Dr. Ludwig Brubaker. Before he can settle down he is interrupted by the doorbell ringing in the apartment building’s main foyer, and stepping out into the hall he is met by the silhouette of every straight male fantasy. The vision that opens the door is known only as The Girl, played by the beautiful and enigmatic Marilyn Monroe. Introducing herself as a single woman renting the apartment upstairs for the summer whilst the owners are away, she walks provocatively up the stairs in a very tight white dress completely oblivious to her very overt sensuality. Richard is instantly consumed by this veritable ‘vision in white’. He considers inviting her in for a casual drink.

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Still muttering to himself Richard settles on a lounge chair on his patio and begins to read from chapter three entitled, The Repressed Urge of the Middle-aged Male: Its Roots and Consequences. Brubaker’s whole philosophy can be summed up with the meaning behind the film’s title. The ‘seven year itch’ refers to the theory that a significant percentage of men are known to commit infidelity after seven years of marriage. Richard imagines that his wife is right there sitting across from him. He makes up elaborate stories of all the incidences that young and beautiful women have thrown themselves at him, that include all the clichés – the secretary whipping off her glasses and the nurse straddling her patient. Richard’s insistence that he is a ‘wanted man’ only makes Imaginary Helen laugh and laugh and laugh. She knows better. She knows that her husband is not the stud that he claims to be, or believes that he is.

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Suddenly a pot plant from the apartment above falls and almost knocks him on the head. He looks up angrily only to discover that his potential executioner is the luscious Miss Monroe. Being the ditz that she is she giggles an apology and he invites her into his apartment for drinks, and so ensues the gloriously fumbling antics of Richard as he attempts to charm The Girl upstairs. The Girl is a former model, now small-time actress doing toothpaste commercials, and the reason she’s in New York for the summer. After Martinis are poured and cigarettes are lit it becomes quite clear that The Girl is only really interested in Richard’s air conditioning.  She regales him with stories of sleeping in the bathtub and keeping her underwear in the icebox, and then brings a bottle of champagne from her apartment to celebrate her 22nd birthday. Richard on the other hand relapses into his fantasies and after a really cute scene in which the two leads play Chopsticks on the piano, he tries to seduce The Girl by attempting to kiss her. Filled with regret and guilt he insists she leave after they both fall off the piano bench onto the floor. Richard demands that she “take [her] potato chips and go”.

The next day Richard is convinced he is an absolutely terrible person and tries to convince his boss to give him leave to go and spend time with Helen and Ricky. With no such luck Richard contacts Dr. Brubaker (author of the dreaded book) (Oskar Homolka) and convinces the author that he has succumbed to ‘the seven year itch’ with The Girl. He conjures up all sorts of scenarios in which she tells the world of her lecherous neighbour and likens him to the monster from the film The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). He imagines that she goes on television during her toothpaste commercial and denounces Richard as an “evil, dangerous, perfectly dreadful married man”. In his delusions even his wife and son catch the commercial on television whilst on holiday relaxing near a lake. Why the son has a television in the middle of the wilderness is anyone’s guess… Richard is so concerned that he calls up his wife, and discovers she is on a ‘hayride’ with a male friend. Without knowing anything substantial he imagines all sorts of not so innocent scenarios involving his wife and the romantic writer acquaintance, Tom Mackenzie (Sonny Tufts).  When he realises that she knows nothing of his ‘almost indiscretion’ he feels elated and goes home with a whistle and a carefree jaunt.

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Of course Richard’s elation doesn’t last long when he begins to imagine his wife and Tom Mackenzie on their hayride, and all the potential outcomes, and none of them innocent. Richard decides that his wife is cheating on him with Tom, and calls up The Girl and invites her to see “an air-conditioned movie’. They emerge from the theatre having just watched The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Walking back to the apartment building The Girl in a flowing white dress will stand over a subway grate creating one of the most iconic scenes in film history, and this scene will make Marilyn Monroe a star.

After the film he invites her back to his cool apartment for a few minutes, and it is now that the audience should realize that these two people are using one another. As they continue to have conversations independently of each other it is clear that he wants to tackle his own mid-life crisis, whilst she is only really interested in his air-conditioning. Richard increases his guilt further when he allows her to spend the night in his apartment, despite his concern that the neighbours might notice and tell his wife. The next morning his fantasies take a violent turn when he imagines his wife getting on an early train home and bursting through the front door with a pistol in her hand intending to kill him. She proceeds to shoot him several times, but refuses his dying wish of a cigarette because “You know what Dr. Murphy told you about smoking [Richard]”.

When the vision ends he gropes for a cigarette and The Girl enters the room dressed in a robe and asked him what the matter is. She feels guilty that she took his bed and that he had to sleep on the couch. He confesses that he has this terrible affliction which has caused him to imagine his wife discovering everything and shooting him several times: “it’s just my imagination. Some people have flat feet, some people have dandruff. I have this appalling imagination”.  He explains to her that he can’t imagine how anyone could be jealous of him, least of all his wife. It is in this moment that The Girl reveals to Richard that it is not the confident good-looking man who sweeps all women off their feet. Very often the shy, quiet man standing in the corner is the one who makes women weak at the knees. In that moment our assumptions that she is shallow disappears and her romantic notions bring tears to the eyes (or at least they did to mine).

Whilst making cinnamon toast and coffee in the kitchen Tom Mackenzie arrives to collect Ricky’s paddle that he left behind at the train station, and Richard is convinced he has come with news from his wife that she wants a divorce. Realizing that she didn’t and simply wants Ricky’s paddle and that no such elicit hayride ever actually took place Richard also realises just how much he really loves his wife. He punches Tom in the face, gets a kiss from The Girl, grabs the paddle and races out the front door to deliver it in person and spend two weeks with his family. He leaves Marilyn Monroe in his apartment with plenty of tall Martinis and air-conditioning.

All is right with the world.

Director Billy Wilder originally wrote this for the stage and the unique humour alone is worth watching Richard and The Girl spending a few hot days together. Ewell is brilliant as the long-suffering and neurotic Richard. And of course there’s Marilyn…

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