The 1950’s and 60’s in American history are generally regarded as a time that saw a great loosening of sexual mores. While the era of free love and casual sex wouldn’t be ushered in until the very late 60’s, anyone who participated in pop culture during the post-war era would have definitely noticed that the conversation about the sex lives of modern Americans was becoming increasingly louder. Indeed, some of the most iconic images from the 20th century were inherently sexual; the kiss between a sailor and a woman in Times Square on V-J Day. John Lennon’s nude embrace of Yoko Ono. Marilyn Monroe’s skirt flying up while she stands over a subway grate. Each one a firm rebuke to American society’s puritanical hangups about intimacy and sexual desire. In the years and centuries prior, entire institutions had been erected to protect ourselves from… well, ourselves– using their bully pulpits to impose narrow-minded values in the name of civic stability. One such institution was the Motion Picture Production Code, better known as “The Hays Code” and established in 1930 to police American studio pictures and ensure the promotion of good Christian ideals. While the Code wouldn’t officially end until 1968, the image of Monroe’s porcelain legs peeking out from underneath a billowing white dress effectively dealt a killing blow to the Code when it was captured in 1955. It’s appropriate, then, that the man behind this image was someone who had spent the better part of his career laying siege to the Hays Code’s ramparts, blasting his way through with increasingly-risque storylines carefully engineered for mass pop appeal.
This image, arguably the most iconic photograph of the most iconic screen actress to ever live, is taken from a centerpiece scene in Billy Wilder’s feature film, THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH (1955). Based on George Axelrod’s Broadway play of the same name, Wilder’s follow-up to his successful 1954 effort, SABRINA, sees Monroe in peak form delivering one of her most famous performances as an unwitting seductress. A title that refers to the supposed yearning of middle-aged men to stray from the confines of monogamy, THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH had initially been set up at Paramount, but when Wilder dumped his contract with the studio, he and co-producer Charles K. Feldman found a new home for the project with Twentieth Century Fox. The film is set in New York City in the summer– a season so humid and sweltering that many husbands send their wives and children out into the country to escape the misery. They paint themselves as martyrs who must stay home and endure the heat so as to continue providing for their families, conveniently neglecting to mention the fact that it also frees them up to indulge in extramarital affairs with reckless abandon. Mild-mannered publisher Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell) is most certainly not one of these jackals, or so he tells himself as he settles in for a quiet summer of clean living and productivity. That plan goes out the window (quite literally) when he inadvertently meets the beautiful blonde (Monroe) subletting the upstairs apartment for the summer. Sherman can’t help but invite her down to his apartment for an innocent drink– a move that will cause him to spend the next few days lusting feverishly after her, manipulating their interactions to optimize his seduction efforts while trying to quell his conscience by convincing himself that his wife might be sneaking around on him. Sherman may think he’s a smooth operator when it comes to women, but this girl has him worked up into a paranoid frenzy that he can barely control. Will he stay true to his wife, or will he succumb to the Seven-Year Itch? And if he does, will he be able to keep anyone from finding out?
Having originated the role on Broadway, Tom Ewell is a natural fit as the nebbish, paranoid protagonist, Richard Sherman. A self-professed “family man”, Sherman’s the very picture of the American male’s midlife crisis– his masculinity and virility is constantly challenged on both the outside (by his wife (Evelyn Keyes) and her emasculating taunts), and the inside (heartburn and indigestion fits giving rise to nervous breakdowns). Despite his possession of an awkward charm that reads as endearing and sweet, Sherman comes from a long line of narcissistic Wilder protagonists, exploiting their natural talents for not-always virtuous gains. He may not have much in the way of moral scruples, but at least he has a name– Monroe’s character is credited only as The Girl, a move that establishes her firmly within the realm of archetype. She exists not as a singular individual, but as a blank slate upon which to project the ultimate midcentury male’s fantasy– blonde, buxom, bubbly, consistently agreeable, and completely oblivious to her own sexual power. Viewing the film in modern times, it’s hard not to see Monroe’s characterization as one-dimensional and indicative of the era’s institutional misogyny. The role doesn’t require much of her, and would look exceedingly generic on paper– so why, then, is it one of her most memorable performances? Billowing skirts and naked legs aside, perhaps it’s precisely because of that “blank slate” nature of the character; an empty canvas upon which Monroe’s enigmatic essence can imprint itself. Monroe’s performance is simply effortless, a result made all the more impressive considering personal problems like her worsening substance abuse and crumbling marriage to Joe DiMaggio were overshadowing her ability to remember her lines. THE SEVEN YEAR ITCHlargely revolves around the seduction tango of these two leads, but the film also includes a memorable appearance bySTALAG 17’s Robert Strauss as Mr. Kruhulik, a boarish janitor with impeccably awful timing.
THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH’s cinematography immediately differentiates itself from Wilder’s previous work in several key ways. The 35mm film is presented in vibrant Technicolor and Cinemascope, which provides an ultra-wide 2.55:1 canvas. Only Wilder’s second film shot in color (1948’s THE EMPEROR WALTZ being the first), he would have shot it in the black-and-white format that he preferred, but in casting Monroe he had to comply with a mandate in her contract with Twentieth Century Fox that decreed all her films be shot in color. Wilder’s previous film, SABRINA, was his first brush with widescreen photography, and THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH further pushes the boundaries of the frame with its anamorphic Cinemascope presentation, necessitating a substantial adjustment in how he composes the frame. As a director who values the primacy of writing above all else, Wilder’s work doesn’t exactly lend itself to eye candy, but THE SEVEN YEAR ITCHlabors to orient itself as exactly that. Working with a new cinematographer in the form of Milton R. Krasner, Wilder foregoes the shadowy chiaroscuro of his monochromatic work in favor of candy-coated pastels and bright, even lighting of the kind one would see employed for a live stage show. Indeed, the film comes across as very theatrical, taking place mostly on the Sherman apartment set designed by art directors Lyle R. Wheeler and George W. Davis. THE SEVEN YEAR ITCHfurther distances itself from Wilder’s utilitarian aesthetic by incorporating double exposures and various other abstractions within the frame to signify the onset of Sherman’s paranoia episodes. Wilder’s approach infuses the film with a great deal of manic energy, the intensity of which is ably matched by Saul Bass’ inventive and artful title designs and a jaunty modern score by Alfred Newman featuring jazzy horns and xylophones. The audiovisual presentation is so dramatically different from Wilder’s established aesthetic that one of the only technical signifiers of his authorship is the use of classical, motivated camera work to instead of hard cuts.
That being said, there’s no shortage of thematic and narrative cues to highlight Wilder’s presence here. His sharply self-aware sense of humor runs throughout the film, whether it’s a crack about Sherman daydreaming in the same aspect ratio that he’s currently framed within, or Sherman suggesting to his nosy neighbor that the blonde in his kitchen might as well be Marilyn Monroe, or even the staging of a fantasized confrontation between Sherman and his jilted wife like it were a scene from DOUBLE INDEMNITY. This sense of playfulness generates a remarkable degree of levity in his depiction of decidedly hot-button topics like marital infidelity or feverish lust, an approach that had up until this point allowed him to skirt by the Hays Code censors relatively unscathed. However, THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH sees Wilder’s luck finally running out; Sherman and the Girl ultimately have sex in the original stage play, but the Hays Office representatives that Wilder was forced to install on his set mandated the watering-down of their consummation to a relatively-chaste peck on the lips. Despite the severe neutering of Wilder’s vision by the domineering Hays Code, Wilder is nonetheless able to convey the new world that Americans found themselves as they entered the back-half of the twentieth century: a world where sex could be casual and carefree. Society’s collective “letting down of their hair” is reflected in the lack of uniforms in THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH, notable because their ubiquity in earlier Wilder films was one of his calling cards. Gone are the stuffy monochromatic suits for the men, replaced by casual, colorful duds that reflect the individuality of their wearer. Monroe is the only character whose wardrobe suggests a uniform, and even then her all-white evening dresses and bathrobes reinforce her character’s blank, archetypical qualities rather than signify her class status or profession.
Wilder’s career-long exploration of man’s identification with his chosen occupation is visible within THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH, albeit at an oblique angle. A great deal of screen time is allocated to Sherman’s career as a publishing executive, but unlike previous Wilder protagonists, his work is not the cause of his troubles. Instead, Wilder’s interest lies in Sherman’s identification of himself as a man via his sex drive, and how it conflicts with the expectations of the chauvinistic institutions that support him. While this approach may not be a direct reflection of how Sherman’s career as a publishing executive shapes him as a man, it does adhere to another common through line in Wilder’s work: the trials and tribulations of the American middle class, of which the fading of traditional masculine ideals was (and still is) a topic of fervent interest.
Given Wilder’s penchant for effortlessly churning out crowd-pleasing hits and Monroe’s stratospheric celebrity, THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH’s warm reception should have surprised approximately no one. Despite the film’s success, Wilder would later regret having made the film under the overbearing supervision of the Hays Code, citing that he wasn’t able to realize his vision to its fullest extent. The film would go on to become one of Wilder’s most iconic works nonetheless, having endured through the decades not just because of the perpetual intrigue around Monroe as an essential icon of the twentieth century, but also because of the timeless appeal of Wilder’s craft. His first film away from the studio he’d called home since 1942,THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH finds Wilder applying his razor-ship wit to a wider, more colorful worldview, and all the while valiantly breaking down cultural barriers so that other filmmakers could tell their stories without compromise.
THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via 20th Century Fox
Produced by: Billy Wilder, Charles K. Feldman
Written by: Billy Wilder, George Axelrod
Director of Photography: Milton R. Krasner
Production Designer: Lyle R. Wheeler, George W. Davis
Edited by: Hugh S. Fowler
Music by: Alfred Newman