When I think of Billy Wilder, his legacy is divided firmly into two categories. The dark and moody noir like Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard and then his later comedies such as Some Like It Hot and The Apartment. At least one of those four films come up on virtually every list of the greatest films ever made (and usually there are several). The Austrian turned American become of the most beloved directors of the 1940s through the 1960s, and list of the greatest directors of Hollywood’s golden age is complete without him near the top. And though his direction is stunning per usual, perhaps it’s the lionized ideal of his works that I hold in my head which caused me to find his 1954 romantic comedy, Sabrina, so lightweight and insubstantial.
No one would ever accuse the light-hearted farce of Some Like It Hot as being cerebral or challenging material, but the lightning-fast nature of its script and the manic energy of Lemmon and Matthau make up for the fact that it lacks the dark overtones that made Wilder so famous in the first place. But, in Sabrina, there’s much to love but almost as much to remove us from the experience. From the lack of any real romantic chemistry between Hepburn and Bogart to a turgid script that feels as if it never wants to get off the ground to some material the feels blatantly misogynistic and condescending to women in a modern viewing, Sabrina is a truly enjoyable film but not nearly one of Wilder’s best works.
Sabrina is a modern spin on the classic Cinderella “rags-to-riches” tale. In 1950s New York, the Larrabees are a family whose wealth seems to rival the Rockefeller. The daughter of the family chauffeur, Sabrina Fairchild (Audrey Hepburn), is in love with the youngest of the Larrabee men, David (Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing‘s William Holden), a rakish skirt-chaser who’s been divorced three times and is set to be married yet again. Though his current engagement has been set up by his brother Linus (To Have and Have Not‘s Humphrey Bogart), the mature and responsible member of the family. When Sabrina sees David seducing a floozy in the tennis court, she tries to kill herself but is rescued by Linus who pretends to be unaware of her original intentions.
Afterwards, Sabrina heads off to Paris to learn to be a cook so she can continue the family tradition of serving wealthier families in the New York area, but when she befriends a wealthy baron, Sabrina returns from Paris a woman fully grown and confident in her own beauty and value to men. David picks her up at a train station and she is so transformed that he doesn’t even recognize her until he brings her back home. Linus, too, falls in love with Sabrina, and both men begin to compete for her affections. Though at first, Linus simply wants to remove Sabrina from the family’s affairs as she threatens David’s new engagement which is holding together a priceless business deal, but sooner or late,r Linus discovers he has to confront his own feelings for Sabrina.
To the film’s credit, the black and white photography by Charles Lang is beautiful in the way that only black and white films from the period could be. We go back and watch movies like Double Indemnity or Pickup on South Street, and for many movie lovers, you long for films with such crisp and clear visual ambition. Sabrina may not look quite that good, but when Wilder has the camera glide in and out of parties and into subtle close-ups which frame the sexual yearning between David and Sabrina and Linus and Sabrina, it’s accomplished with a grace and ease that few film-makers today could hope to match.
But sadly, the film’s story isn’t as good as its direction (which is the case, I feel, for so many of the films before the 1960s). Audrey Hepburn is more or less emotionally manipulated and abused by both David and Linus for the entire film, and though David suffers his fair share of hilarious mishaps as punishment (a broken champagne glass providing one of the film’s funnier moments), Linus only gets a happy ending with no personal cost. He constantly tries to ignore, buy off, and exile Sabrina, but at the end, they still fall madly in love (I can’t imagine that obvious ending being a major spoiler). He treats her mostly like a nuisance, but she never seems offended by it. My sister and I were both rooting by the end of the film for her to say “Fuck it!” and abandon both men.
Most damning for the film is that the romance between Hepburn and Bogart (which is the very core of the film) carried about as much sizzle and heat as a snowman. The much older Bogart (he was thirty years older than Hepburn at the time of filming) had been in a passionate love affair with Lauren Bacall for ten years in 1954, and it is clear that he had almost no attraction to Hepburn, and subsequently, he couldn’t make it seem like Linus did either. The only romantic scenes which seem to work involve the pouting and long-suffering Sabrina lusting after the elusive and roguish David, if for no other reason than Hepburn’s beautifully expressive face captures the depth of Sabrina’s longing and pain.
All those complaints aside, Sabrina is a lovely and very enjoyable film. It just seems so… light and shallow compared to the greatest films in Wilder’s library. Of course, my sister expressed a most Philistine of opinions when, after the credits rolled, she turned to me and said she enjoyed Sabrina more than Casablanca. I may have to disown her for such heresy, but perhaps my indifference to the romantic whimsies of this film are rooted in the fact that I am an often cynical male and not the type easily swayed and romanticized by the fantasy of this tale. For Bogie and Hepburn fans, Sabrina may not be their best work, but it’s still a must-see film.
Final Score: B