Yes, The Seven Year Itch would have been even better with Jack Lemmon in the lead, but director Billy Wilder still makes smart use of the mugging Tom Ewell for this comic satire about the sex-addled mind of the married man.
Ewell plays Richard Sherman, one of the many Manhattan businessmen who send their wives and children away for the summer so they can escape the stultifying heat. By chance, this also allows the husbands a few months to run wild, though Richard – with a not entirely confident look in his eyes – repeatedly declares, “Not me. Not me.”
At first, Richard’s indiscretions are merely the stuff of fantasy. In an imagined conversation with his scoffing wife (Evelyn Keyes), who doubts he’d even be able to attract someone else while she’s gone, Richard describes the many women (his secretary, a nurse) who have supposedly tried to seduce him in the past. The funny thing about these fantasies, aside from the soap-opera volume at which they’re played, is the way Richard’s noble resistance serves as the money shot. Even in his imagined trysts, Richard is trying to convince himself: “Not me. Not me.”
Monroe’s timing is so perfect, it’s impossible to write the character off as a dimwit even though she seems barely aware of what room she’s in.
But then reality intrudes, in the form of a new upstairs neighbor in the form of Marilyn Monroe. Or is this more fantasy? Considering she’s named The Girl in the credits, it’s very likely that this is another figment of Richard’s imagination. Either way, Monroe takes over the movie the minute she appears onscreen, wearing impossible outfits and telling the most ridiculous stories with the lightest touch (one involves getting her toe stuck in the tub faucet and having to call a plumber for help). Monroe’s timing is so perfect, it’s impossible to write the character off as a dimwit even though she seems barely aware of what room she’s in. There’s a particularly dexterous moment when The Girl demonstrates a toothpaste ad she’s the star of, and you can see Monroe working the various layers of allure – as Marilyn Monroe, as The Girl, as the toothpaste model – while being funny the whole time.
Ewell’s performance isn’t quite as intricate, but he’s amusing enough. When he’s alone, Richard is constantly babbling to himself about what he shouldn’t do – it’s a symptom of his repression, yes, but also evidence of his desperation. It’s as if he’s afraid that once he stops talking himself out of things, he’ll immediately do them. Once he does cross the line with The Girl, his obsession immediately shifts from sexual fantasy to guilt. He even develops a tic – a thumb that won’t stop popping up.
So The Seven Year Itch, based on the stage play by co-screenwriter George Axelrod, is a broad comedy in which sex is something of a curse. The move is hardly subversive – it ends with Richard fleeing The Girl to reunite with his wife and son – but at least it recognizes that even for the most resolutely determined among us, that thumb is occasionally going to twitch.