The Seven Year Itch

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Review by Joshua Gibbs

  • Richard Sherman bears his name like a terrible question. Is he a sure man? The Seven Year Itch is the story of Dick walking that question like a tightrope, suspended over a chasm of infidelity and madness, two sad fates more often intertwined in reality than modern fiction is comfortable representing. The film begins with a scene apparently on loan from the Museum of Natural History; Native American men of the 17th century send their wives and children north for the Summer while “…the husbands remained behind to attend to business: Setting traps, fishing and hunting," or so the narrator claims as the husbands, having waived goodbye to their wives only moments earlier, turn and see some pretty young thing and follow her so many 13th century Saxon rats. The story jumps forward several centuries, and we find Richard seeing his wife Helen and son Ricky off at Grand Central. The narrator continues "We brought up the subject [of the Native Americans] to show how nothing has changed. Manhattan wives and children are still sent away in the summer.  Husbands remain behind to attend to business: Setting traps, fishing and hunting." Ah, yes. But what kind of traps? What kind of hunting?

    Before she leaves, Helen tells Ricky to eat properly, not to smoke and not to drink in her absence and he blithely agrees, dining at a vegetarian restaurant that very evening (such things existed in 1955, surprisingly enough) and then locking up his cigarettes and throwing away the key in a very easy to reach place before retiring to the porch to proofread a chapter entitled The Repressed Urge in the Middle-Aged Male: Its’ Roots and Its’ Consequences from a book entitled Of Man and the Unconscious by Dr. Ludwig Brubaker, whose last name suggests the wicked old crones who open Macbeth.

    Progressive European culture gets skewered in every act of the film, and perhaps in every scene. While a young man, Wilder once tried to interview Sigmund Freud and famously had the door slammed in his face; the episode seems an insult he never quite got over. By the 50's, psychoanalysis had expanded from the university classroom to the rural kitchen and even the unschooled housewife could speak of the "Oedipus complex", "anal retentiveness", "the ego", "destructive impulses" and "personality disorders" with the same kind of risible confidence with which everybody speaks of such things today. Richard interacts with the views of mental and physical well-being fashionable in his own day as a kind of incredulous tourist. The vegetarian meal he consumes is made of "soybean hamburger...French fried soybeans...Soybean sherbet and peppermint tea," and when the waitress tells him he should be proud to know the whole repast consisted of "only 260 calories,"  Dick dully responds, "I am proud." Once home alone, instead of liquor, Dick briefly abides by his wife's rules and cracks open a soda, then reads the label aloud. 'Carbonated water, citric acid, corn syrup, artificial raspberry flavoring...vegetable colors and preservative.' Why is this stuff better for you than a little scotch and a twist of lemon? I'd really like to know.  While the exposition of the film sometimes makes Sherman out to be a hapless, hen-pecked boob, at other times Wilder wants us to feel he is the last sane man in a world going mad. The progressive vision of self-control works for all of five minutes after Dick finds an unattached Marilyn Monroe is moving into the apartment above his own. When Sherman tries to get down to business and read Of Man and the Unconscious on his back patio,  Monroe appears on the balcony above him, nude but for some strategically placed tomato plants, and the reading project is abandoned instantaneously. Any need to discuss the unconscious or repressed is summarily dismissed as he hollers for her to get dressed and come down for a drink.

    At this point, Wilder splits the film wide, wide open. Sherman comes back in, lights a cigarette and quaffs two stiff drinks, then waits for a knock at his door. What, exactly, has opened the door to the infidelity which seems ever likelier? We might begin with the laughable notion that men "get things done" in the absence of women, for most of the things married men get done over the one-off bachelor weekend are commensurate with good old-fashioned bachelor living itself. However, Wilder lays on the critique of progressivism and Big Science so thickly in the first ten minutes of the film, it is hard to avoid seeing Sherman as a coil, ever more tightly wound by the inhuman demands of a mechanical, materialistic age. We can't help but to wonder if Richard had started the evening with "martinis and goulash" he might have fallen asleep on the sofa and the ensuing mess with Marilyn been avoided.

    On the other hand, Sherman seems a man of meager resolve.

    The whole film occurs over a three day period, and while I am tempted to make something significant of that fact, I’ll resist because Wilder has other work which concerns the wild weekend, and The Seven Year Itch is drawn from a similar vein. The Apartment, The Long Weekend and even Some Like It Hot address the morally deleterious effects liberty often have on the uninvolved man. After dropping his family off at the train station, Sherman doesn’t even make it back through his front door before the tear in his resolve begins. A young woman (Monroe, of course) is moving in upstairs, and Dick holds the door for her as they enter the apartment building together. From this point until the film ends, Dick oscillates back and forth between a desire to be faithful and a desire to give in to temptation. While we’re not privy to every thought which crosses his mind, the film borrows much of the staginess of the stage production, and Sherman is often speaking his thoughts aloud to empty rooms. This is fitting, though. The dramatic monologue (delivered directly to the audience on an otherwise empty stage) is an unusual storytelling device— an event which takes place before our eyes, and yet, the monologue is not meant to be taken at face value. It is not part of the plot, as though someone hiding in the bushes might overhear it (even though, oddly enough, that does happen from time to time). Rather, the dramatic monologue occurs within the mind of the character, outside of time. So, too, I suspect that much of The Seven Year Itch, including the woman upstairs, are meant to be taken as dreams and spiritual struggles. The Girl, as Monroe is credited, rarely behaves in a psychologically plausible fashion. Sherman makes a somewhat violent pass at her after she’s been in his apartment for half an hour, and she seems unoffended, though she awkwardly leaves shortly thereafter. When the character needs to be plausibly human, Monroe scales back her naiveté, but resumes it seamlessly as Sherman calls for it. On their second night together, outside a movie theater, the two share a few not-entirely chaste kisses, apparently to test the veracity of the Girl’s toothpaste brand, which promises to help users stay “kissing-sweet.” After a little lip-locking, Sherman remarks, “My faith in the integrity of advertising is restored,” although nothing more sensual passes between them for the remainder of the film. A few feet further down the sidewalk, the Girl stands over a subway grate and the wind blows her skirt up, which she claims “sort of cools the ankles,” though not the imagination. The Girl of Sherman’s fantasy is aptly named. She’s not The Woman, after all, and seems little more intellectual than a ten-year old. This is one of the sharper points Wilder has to make, though; within Wilder’s oeuvre, we learn that it’s not good for man to be alone, but being attached is no cakewalk, either. Sherman’s fantasy girl is untenably stupid and sub-intellectual; when men dream of the other woman, they dream of nothing at all. There is no other woman, which Sherman realizes after nearly losing his mind, only a few days into his productive summer alone. While Monroe is a fantasy, the threat of getting caught is really what keeps Dick faithful. He doesn’t have a sense of obligation to his wife, so much as he has a fear of his life getting out of whack, and even contemplating an affair has done too much in that direction. He’s no sentimentalist. He’s a survivalist, and some mystery runs deep in marriage which balances a man in ways Wilder can only hint at.

    Is Richard a sure man? Or surely a man, in that man is flawed? In the end, he seems both. As the film closes,  Dick runs from Monroe like righteous Joseph fleeing Potiphar's wife, but then Potiphar's wife calls for him and he pauses. Maybe the whole film is in that pause, when Tom Ewell turns to Marilyn Monroe, who is hanging out the window of his apartment, tossing him his clothes. He looks like a fool, and he is, but God bless him, he keeps running.

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