Sunday 27 March 2016

Movie Review: The Seven Year Itch (1955)

A comedy about lust threatening marriage, The Seven Year Itch features a lustrous Marilyn Monroe but is otherwise stage bound and borderline monotonous.

With Manhattan suffering through a mid-summer heatwave, New York pulp book publisher Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell) packs off his wife Helen (Evelyn Keyes) and insufferable young boy to the country. Left alone in his modest apartment, Richard does his best to behave himself and not succumb to the temptations of smoking, drinking and womanizing. But as soon as he sets his eyes on the unnamed girl (Monroe) house-sitting the unit above him, most of his self-control dissipates.

He tries to distract himself by locking away his cigarettes, talking to himself, and reading a manuscript about men's tendencies to stray seven years into their marriage. But then the girl accidentally drops a tomato plant onto his patio chair, setting off a series of interactions. She visits him for a drink, and Richard's wild imagination, fuelled by his career as an expert promoter of sex and violence for any book, combines with his lustful impulses and his insecurities to drive him in many different directions at once. The inconvenient interruptions of the building's janitor do not help.

Directed by Billy Wilder, who also co-wrote the screenplay with George Axelrod, The Seven Year Itch is an adaptation of Axelrod's play and never strays far from its stage origins. Mostly trapped in Richard's apartment, the film uses some imaginative sequences to try and break out of its confines, but barely avoids a sense of slow suffocation. The humour is mild, the social critique topical but also unsubstantively dealt with. This is a comedy about men struggling to control their most base urges and to accept the benefits of domesticity, and that point is made early and repeated often.

In the most brusque terms, with Richard literally talking to himself throughout the film, The Seven Year Itch explores the clash between men's primordial tendencies and modern expectations. Richard wants to believe that he will remain forever insanely desirable; he loves Helen but wonders if they take each other for granted; he wants to believe that she trusts him and yet works his way into the most uncompromising mess; all while his insecurities, jealousies and misguided belief that he is a suave lover play havoc with his psyche. The themes are interesting, but dealt with in literally theatrical terms, spilled out into the open with no room for any subtle contemplation.

Marilyn Monroe as the appropriately unnamed girl represents every man's fantasy fling, and Wilder gets the best out of his star, as she radiates with her unique brand of self-consciously innocent sexuality, desperately trying to cool herself by blowing air through as little clothing as possible, including the famous subway grate scene. Poured into a succession of stunning outfits Monroe effectively plays herself, complete with a history of risque fashion photography and Richard's character referring to the girl as "maybe she's Marilyn Monroe".

The vivid colour cinematography pops the film to life, while Richard's favourite piece of music, Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto, adds blustery grandeur to his Lothario imaginings (as it turns out, the girl is actually turned on by Chopsticks).

The weak supporting cast includes Sonny Tufts as a well-tanned potential rival for Helen's affections in the country, Robert Strauss as the building janitor, Victor Moore as a plumber who helps the girl unplug her toe from the bathtub faucet, Marguerite Chapman as Richard's assistant Miss Morris, and Oskar Homolka as Dr. Brubaker, the author of the manuscript Richard is trying to read. They each get a couple of scenes at most, and leave no impact.

The Seven Year Itch is undeniably dated and constrained, but also timeless thanks to the presence of one of the screen's eternal idols.

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