The Seven Year Itch (1955)
Some of cinema’s most iconic moments are relatively simple ones – Harry Lime appearing out of the shadows, Darth Vader revealing his secret to Luke, or lonely Travis Bickle rehearsing in front of a mirror. The Seven Year Itch has one for the books, too. Marilyn Monroe stands over a subway grating in a beautiful white dress. A train passes underneath, blowing her dress up as her male companion looks on. And that’s it. But the scene has become so famous that I’d bet a good chunk of the people who can picture the moment in their minds haven’t even watched The Seven Year Itch, much less know what film it’s from, or who it was by. The scene has become larger than the film itself. In other words, it’s become synonymous with Marilyn Monroe.
Of course, that means this was Monroe’s film through and through, and Billy Wilder was intelligent enough of a director to not only acknowledge that fact, but work around it – he simply let her take over. The Seven Year Itch is not so much a Billy Wilder film, but one of the many that reinforced Monroe’s ditzy persona and massive popularity at the time. Even leading man Tom Ewell, who reprises his role from the stage play, is upstaged whenever Monroe appears on screen, despite the fact that he’s in virtually every scene, and gives a charming performance himself. Which leads me to believe that the film’s iconic scene is both an advantage and a hindrance – sure, the moment is pure movie magic, but it also overshadows the rest of the picture’s strengths.
Filmed in CinemaScope, The Seven-Year Itch proved that Wilder was not only a master of subtle composition, but color as well. On top of that, there’s the narrative – mild-mannered executive Richard Sherman, spurred on by a book that suggests a good deal of men have affairs during their seventh year of marriage, ponders the idea when a woman moves into the apartment upstairs. The woman just happens to be played by Marilyn Monroe. Monroe, who at that time had already been typecast, gives her most sincere performance up until that point. She enrolled in the Actors Studio during filming, and her role as The Girl has always struck me as an attempt to prove how comfortable and exciting she was as an actress.
Based on the three-act play by George Axelrod, the film isn’t brought down by the limitations of the stage. Wilder and Axelrod manage to make it feel like a real movie, rather than filmed words from a play. In fact, the small number of sets and extended conversations work quite well, and its tightly constructed script makes it a breeze to watch. The Seven Year Itch remains one of Wilder’s most underrated efforts – it’s more than just a test run for The Apartment, which also dealt with extra-marital affairs in a comedic and focused way. Forget the subway scene, The Seven Year Itch is so much more than that, and it’s surprisingly aged quite well.
The Seven Year Itch is available on Blu-ray from Amazon.