In his 1961 classic The Apartment, Billy Wilder presents a scathing critique of a Mad Men-type culture — an environment of sexually aggressive corporate playboys who treat their underlings as disposable accessories for a hedonist wonderland — and it’s tempting to view it as an apology of sorts for his 1955 sex comedy The Seven Year Itch, which looks at that same environment from a different, and more problematic angle. A movie like The Seven Year Itch is hit hard by the current fashion of studying every old artifact of pop culture through a lens of “woke” moral snobbery, but it’s worth noting the startling difference just six years made in Wilder’s treatment of sexual mores.
Tom Ewell stars as Richard, a mid-level Manhattan publishing executive who wrestles with temptation when his wife and son take a vacation from the sweltering heat of the city summer. Although his colleagues, in similar scenarios, embrace new opportunities for excess during their temporary liberations from domesticity, Richard wants to be faithful and industrious — but this becomes nearly impossible when a sensuous young woman (Marilyn Monroe) sublets the apartment upstairs. Emboldened by fantasies of his own virility, Richard invites “The Girl” to his irresistibly air-conditioned apartment where she bubbles with innocent sexuality and he flirts with awkward ineptitude.
Ignoring retroactively problematic sexual politics for a moment, The Seven Year Itch is appealingly bright, never too broad in its satirical approach, and anchored by two engaging lead performers who make every scene snap with equal parts comic verve and humanity. Ewell is a perfectly likable sad-sack everyman and Monroe takes an anonymously frivolous character and makes her explode with warmth and life. There are laughs, great lines of dialog, and a colorful sense of fun that should at least partially melt the stern resistance of even the most humorless progressive kommissar.
In contrast to the broader scope of The Apartment, however, The Seven Year Itch suffers some from its limited point-of-view, which reduces every woman into a caricature drawn by Richard’s neuroses. Where The Apartment is deeply empathetic to the sensitive people who are used up and discarded by a steamrolling system of amoral bullies, The Seven Year Itch is a playful study of the allure to becoming yet another one of those monsters. In a way, it’s like Pixar’s Inside Out, but from within the mind of a casually responsible adult man who is caught between strictly programmatic social expectations of fidelity and total bacchanalian abandon. Maybe The Seven Year Itch wouldn’t seem half as troubling if anyone other than Monroe had played its nameless apex of seduction; she is so talented and bursting with potential that it’s a bit depressing to see her confined to this type of role — an obliviously babyish sexpot with no utility beyond how men react toward her — regardless of how significantly she transforms it by sheer force of her personality.
However, there might still be some ideas, however unpopular now, worth acknowledging within the regressive attitudes that make up the environment of The Seven Year Itch. As its prologue suggests with a cringingly accurate simplicity, the male response to female sexuality has always been one of base predatory instinct, essentially unchanging from the stone age to the faux-sophistication of mid-century New York City. Just as immutable, it seems, is the stark dichotomy of how women interpret the male urge, from ignorably harmless to transgressively invasive. Even though there is something more than a little gross about how Richard uses — and “The Girl” offers — her affection as a means toward managing his spastic libido back toward its most useful directive, it may be more effective to acknowledge and manage this stubborn grossness, as depicted here, than to vainly wish it away.
The Seven Year Itch was brought to the Potluck Film Fest by Connor Ryan Adamson. He ranks it on his Flickchart at #80 / 1257 (94%), making it his fourth favorite out of seven Billy Wilder films. It ranked on my Flickchart at #999 (75%), putting it at number 4 on my chart of 11 Billy Wilder movies.