The Seven Year Itch certainly isn't one of Marilyn Monroe's best films, but its appeal is pretty obvious and easily falls somewhere between 5 and 8 if one were to rank her films in some kind of qualitative order. It has some great moments and features arguably her most overtly sexual performance as the young woman (never named) who wreaks havoc in the life of a middle-aged married man (played by Tom Ewell). Monroe doesn't ever actually do anything to totally derail Ewell's life, but within an hour of meeting her he's resumed everything he just swore off- smoking, drinking, and carousing and feverishly plots a way to bed Monroe. His secret weapon in the hunt? Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto.
The "Rachmaninoff Reverie" is easily the highlight of the film. Ewell's absurd fantasy works so well because George Axelrod's script skewers male lust with a precise combination of mockery and fondness. Of course it certainly doesn't hurt that Monroe was at the apex of her bombshell years and would never be viewed (or filmed) quite the same way after Itch, since Bus Stop (her next film) proved once and for all she could really act. But even with a lesser female presence as the object of desire, the scene would still work because it's so spot on- men really do conjure up the most ridiculous fantasies when they unexpectedly encounter exceptionally good-looking women.
The other reason it works so well is because Axelrod made a perfect choice by using Rachmaninoff's concerto as the anchor of the scene, creating an amusing parody of its use in Brief Encounter a decade earlier.
In the film Ewell is home alone reading of a book entitled "The Repressed Urges of the Middle-aged Male: Its Roots and Its Consequences" when his wife calls and he steps outside during the call. After hanging up with his wife he's about to go back inside his apartment when a potted tomato plant crashes down from Monroe's balcony, nearly missing him.
His initial anger turns immediately to neighborly forgiveness once he sees Monroe's the culprit. He invites her downstairs for a drink, which she happily accepts. She just has to take her underwear out of the freezer first.
As he's getting ready for her arrival he peruses his albums, pondering out loud what to choose as the soundtrack for the great seduction that's about to unfold: "Let's see... Debussy... Ravel... Stravinsky... Stravinsky would only scare her." He let's out a little gasp, pulls a record from the collection and says, "Here's the baby, Rachmaninoff... give her the full treatment, come in like gangbusters."
He puts the album on the turntable, takes a sip of scotch, pulls a suave drag from his cigarette, and a dreamy look comes into his eyes. Looking off into somewhere only he can see, he goes on, "Good old Rachmaninoff... the second piano concerto, never misses," like he's done this a hundred times before.
As the piece begins, Ewell's dreamy look quickly morphs into a lecherous leer as he looks toward the closed front door of his apartment, and as the piano's opening chords descend into the orchestra's swirling accompaniment, an opaque Monroe descends down the stairs and through the door like a ghost. Monroe has never looked sultrier onscreen than she does here- she's palpably provocative, dressed in a skin-tight gown (tiger striped, no less), to the point where you can almost see steam rising from her. Seen on a large screen, she's perhaps best described as a disruption in the natural order of things.
Ewell is now seated at the piano dressed in a red smoking jacket, nonchalantly playing the piece, and in an affected European drool offers, "You came. I'm so glad."
Monroe writhes at the opposite end of the piano and snarls, "Rachhhhhmaninoff."
He replies "The Second Piano Concerto," as if this was the most inevitable thing in the world for him to be playing.
She looks down helplessly, avoiding his eyes, and says, "It isn't fair."
"Not fair? Why?" he replies, never missing a note.
"Every time I hear it I go to pieces."
She approaches him and asks "May I sit next to you?"
She sits down next to him on the bench and turns her body toward the camera. To the audience, that is. She brings her long, dark cigarette to her mouth and inhales deeply. She sets the cigarette down and begins to caress herself.
Perhaps I'm getting a little carried away here. Well, no I'm not. That's exactly what happens. In the movie, I mean.
|Marilyn Monroe on a subway grate in Manhattan.|
This entire scene of The Seven Year Itch played through my mind in a flash as I watched Khatia Buniatishvili stride onstage at Davies Symphony Hall last week, where she was the guest soloist with the San Francisco Symphony for- yes, that's right- Rachhhhhhmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto.
Buniatishvili wore a white gown, skin-tight, with rhinestone sequins hugging every curve with cascades of something resembling mohair flowing from her thighs to the floor. Monroe would have applauded it. Monroe would have looked sensational in it. Kind of like she did at Kennedy's birthday at Madison Square Garden, and with a physique rivaling Monroe's, Buniatishvili's entrance caused my brain to fall out my skull, land somewhere on the floor, and roll under the seat in front of me. All I could really think to myself was fuuuuuck as she smiled, bowed slightly and took her seat at the bench, smiling like an ingenue.
It took me about four or five minutes to focus on the music and it was only then I realized that good old Rachmaninoff was having a rather turgid time of it in the first movement, with guest conductor Vladimir Jurowski and the orchestra out of sync with the pianist and nothing coming from the stage that would have made anyone writhe in ecstasy. Though I had a great seat where I could watch Buniatishvili's fingers on the keyboard and see her from a perfect forty-five degree angle, I found myself slightly envious of Alexander Barantschik's view.
The second movement only picked up with the contributions from the soloists of the orchestra, who rendered its lilting theme with grace, but it felt constricted and remained so through the third movement and though Buniatishvili played it with enough physical conviction to make her rise off the bench at moments, it sounded much tamer than it looked. Still, as she took her bows and the audience gave her a standing ovation, I couldn't help but think she's the sexiest woman I've ever seen on a stage. Any stage.
|Khatia Buniatishvili on a red carpet in Germany.|
During the intermission I stepped outside and encountered an acquaintance. We discussed what we had just seen and heard. I was more interested in the former, he the latter, but I couldn't help wondering if that was a decorous decision on his part and not reflective of his true thoughts on the matter. He was accompanied by a woman who was being accosted by a butch woman on a mission and I was trying to parse out exactly what was going on before giving up and returning inside.
I was seated next to a former rabbi and his wife, who had just returned from a European cruise. I asked him what he thought of Buniatishvili. I didn't ask his wife.
The second half of the concert featured the first North American performance of excerpts from Prokofiev's score for Sergei Eisenstein's film Ivan the Terrible, arranged by L.T. Atovmyan into a kind of mini-opera featuring two singers (mezzo-soprano Elena Zaremba and baritone Andrey Breus) and chorus. It was an exuberant performance all around- the chorus sang with boisterous precision, and the soloists not only sang it well, but seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely. Zeremba was often tapping her feet and moving along to the music, and Breus wore traditional boots and trowsers, looking somewhat ridiculous with a whip in his hand. Chekov's gun maxim should have been applied here more forcefully than it actually was during "The Oprichniks" sequence. Nevertheless, Jurowski, making his debut appearance with the orchestra, showed why his appearance was highly anticipated, providing real contrast between this part and "Swan" segment before guiding the strings and flutes through the instrumental "Anastasya" segment, which was drenched in the uniquely Russian sound.
Zeremeba conjured her best Ulrica for "The Broad Expanse of the Sea," making me realize it's been too long since she's appeared across Grove Street. "The Fall of Kazan" featured wondferul playing from the tubas (!) and cellos before culminating in a loud finish which sounds like Prokofiev doing Fasolt and Fafner in Russian. "The Glorification" featured some extremely tricky parts for the clarinets, and brought things to an end with Russia united and still standing. It was a blast, and well worth hearing.
The concert began with Scriabin's brief Reverie, which was played so wonderfully it came across as much more than the amuse bouche I expected.