Directed by Billy Wilder
Moments like the one near The Seven Year Itch are why I watch movies. I love movie structure and find a certain comfort in the familiar, expected beats of a feature narrative, but there’s something special about those spots in the middle when you find a way to throw the audience off balance. It’s a small moment in this almost slapstick comedy, but it came out of nowhere and got me pretty good. It’s a funny moment, I should say.
The film concerns a 38 (almost 39!) year old man named Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell). He’s a publishing executive in a stuffy office in New York City. When the film opens, he is sending away his wife and son for a vacation upstate while he remains behind, raking in those dollar bills. Sherman is a bit nerdy and certainly emburdened by his own imagination.
When his wife leaves, Sherman returns home, feeling self-righteous about his own manhood. This comes after he begins to read through the manuscript of a book detailing “the repressed urge of the middle-aged male.” He can only get through a sentence or two before his mind begins to wander and his insecurity begins to grow.
First he considers his new upstairs neighbor, referred to only as The Girl (Marilyn Monroe), a woman who strikes his fancy. Then he begins to take pride in his own faithfulness to his wife. Then he starts to feel self-righteous about that faithfulness. He’s trustworthy, so why doesn’t his wife trust him?
Why does his wife need to phone him at 10 pm? Can’t she trust that he’s not out their philandering? Then he has an imagined conversation with his wife in which he tells her about all the women he knows who have been throwing themselves at him. His ghostly wife laughs at all his stories, not believing them. ‘But I am appealing to women,’ Sherman is saying.
The Girl drops a potted plant from above, and when she apologizes, Sherman invites her down for a drink. The first half of the film concerns Sherman’s attraction to his neighbor and the push and pull of his conscience as he fights this attraction. He has a few more fantasies, including one in which he seduces her (as a silver fox) with a piano concerto. When she finally comes downstairs, they play Chopsticks together, and he makes a pass at her, which she rebuffs.
The second half of the film begins with the fallout from this moment. Though The Girl accepted Sherman’s apology, he begins to panic. What if his wife discovers? His neighbor is on television after all, so surely she will go on national tv and besmirch his name.
In several more imagined scenarios, Sherman pictures what this might all look like, culminating in a scene in which his wife comes home and shoots him dead. The point of all this is to emphasize Sherman’s volatile mindset, flip flopping from one extreme to the other. He’s insecure, jealous (of his wife and a family friend), full of himself, etc. Sherman drives himself crazy, and as his mind races, he and The Girl grow closer and closer.
All of Sherman’s crazy imaginations, played for comic effect, resemble Preston Sturges’ Unfaithfully Yours. In that film, an orchestra conductor finds evidence that his wife may be having an affair, and over three different musical pieces he imagines how he might respond to her perceived infidelity. It’s a screwball comedy which finds humor in the protagonist’s crazy ideas. He’s a madman, in a sense, and the movie ends with him realizing he was driving himself crazy all for nothing.
And that’s basically what The Seven Year Itch did, only seven years later. The film is a similar style of comedy, finding its protagonist to be the biggest joke of the movie. This film was adapted from a Broadway play in which Ewell had previously starred, and much of this film takes place in his small apartment. Even as Sherman’s imagination runs wild, he remains stuck in one place, and this adds to the theme of men fighting their baser instincts. These are hunters who need to go out and provide for the family, but their primal savagery is bottled up in suits, ties and briefcases.
This point is driven home in the very first scene of the film which depicts the original natives who settled in Manhattan hundreds of years earlier. They send off their wives, as the narrator says, and stay behind to hunt and provide for the family. As he says this we see them eye a passing woman. The narrator then says something along the lines of, ‘our story doesn’t involve these characters. This is just to show that nothing has changed’ before we see all the button-down civilians of 1955 Manhattan. Later, Sherman will bluntly say, “under this thin veneer of civilization we’re all savages.”
Okay, so that’s what the movie is about, “the repressed urge of the middle-aged male.” It’s about making light of the ways our society has bottled up certain qualities that, perhaps, are undeniable. Except that Sherman is a bit of an unreliable narrator. The joke isn’t that this is the way men (and people in general) are but that this is what Sherman thinks we are. Right? Maybe it’s suggesting that we are all these bottled up souls letting our minds run rampant because everything else in our life is taken care of. I know I feel that way sometimes.
Alright, so anyways, near the end of the film a family friend visits Sherman. At this point Sherman is nervous that people will believe he had an affair with The Girl, so his goal is cover it up. He hides The Girl in the kitchen, and when the friend comes through, Sherman decides to jump in front of the misunderstanding by being too direct, saying there’s a “blonde” in the kitchen, which leads to…
Tom: “What blonde in the kitchen?”
Sherman: “Wouldn’t you like to know! Maybe it’s Marilyn Monroe!”
And I lost it, it’s perfect. Of course The Girl is Marilyn Monroe, just another one of Sherman’s crazy imaginations. She is in some ways the perfect person for him, at least at this point in his life. She walks in, demanding the male gaze, she forgives his transgressions, and in the end she fills him with an undeserved confidence. She gives him everything he needs (even as he offers her his apartment, free air conditioning, etc.). So it’s a strangely reciprocal friendship, but her presence feels as imagined as his other imaginations.
It’s also a moment of self-awareness that I often forget films these old might have. Billy Wilder’s movies tend to have a moment like that, a single line of dialogue that stands out from the rest of the film. He’s a kind of master of these types of moments. Let me rattle off a few…
“Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.” – Sunset Boulevard
“Nobody’s perfect!” – Some Like It Hot
“I don’t go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons.” – Ace in the Hole
“Shut up and deal.” – The Apartment
Out of context those might not be so great, but they’re often the perfect summation for a character or the movie as a whole. I don’t really know how else to describe it, but I do know that the final lines to Sunset Boulevard and Some Like It Hot are two of the most famous final moments in film.
Wilder was a talented director who could make movies like Double Indemnity, Ace in the Hole, Sunset Boulevard and comedies like The Apartment, Some Like It Hot and The Seven Year Itch. His movies are always about something, even the comedies, but it takes an insane kind of skill to move so effortlessly from bleak drama to screwball comedy.
Up Next: 50/50 (2011), The Beguiled (2017), Breaking Away (1979)