Reviews of Classic Movies: 'Sabrina'
It’s all too easy to look back at classic decades in moviemaking like the 50s or 60s and think that they were “better” times for cinema. Somehow, we forget that Hollywood has always struggled with problems like formulaic scripts, endless remakes, or films that are simply miscast. And while being reminded of that truth isn’t always pleasant, it can actually be weirdly comforting: maybe the doomsday-esque pronouncements about the death of Hollywood aren’t accurate after all.
All of this came to mind after I took in Sabrina, the 1954 movie directed by Billy Wilder (The Apartment), and starring Audrey Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart and William Holden. Based on those four names alone, you’d think you’d be in for a timeless experience – a film you’d expect to feature in an Oscars showreel. Sadly, Sabrina doesn’t come off much better than most of our contemporary rom-coms. The movie has moments of snappy writing, but it doesn’t sell you on either of the love stories it tries to cram in. Ultimately, Sabrina serves as an almost-forgettable waypoint in the careers of Wilder, Hepburn, Bogart and Holden – maybe the Focus of 1954?
The titular character in Sabrina is played by Hepburn, who already seems to be developing a prototype for the capricious character she would play seven years later in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Sabrina is one of those hopeless romantics that are part of a rom-com’s DNA: she’s the daughter of a chauffeur for a wealthy family, and nurses a longtime crush on David Larrabee, the younger, errant son of the family (Holden). For their part, the brothers David and Linus (Bogart) barely notice Sabrina, who’s left to watch longingly from afar as David entertains a revolving door of pretty girls offered up by his father’s business connections.
Sabrina’s father (John Williams) has had enough of his daughter’s preoccupation, and sends her off to culinary school in Paris. Sabrina returns one year later as a proverbial “ugly duckling turned into a swan”, and immediately attracts David’s attention. (Incidentally, that quote is from Netflix Canada’s synopsis, and I just can’t understand how Audrey Hepburn could ever be ugly, but moving on…)
David’s sudden interest in Sabrina is cartoonish at best, and this is where the problems in the film begin. While there’s an argument to be made that movies like Sabrina can only be taken so seriously, at some point we have the draw a line for believability in a film, and Sabrina begins to violate it pretty quickly, and often.
Not only is it hard to believe that David would suddenly pay attention to Sabrina because she dresses differently, the movie then takes liberties with rest of the characters’ motivations. Take Linus, for example, who’s worried that Sabrina and David’s affair will jeopardize David’s arranged marriage to a sugar tycoon’s daughter, which will in turn hurt Linus’ business dealings. At first, Linus is painted as a villain, and then perhaps as a romantic rival for Sabrina’s affections. Never does Bogart (or the script) convince us that he’s actually fallen for Sabrina – it just sort of happens because the film thinks it should.
David is inexplicably sidelined from the film when he sits on a pair of champagne glasses (don’t ask) and is left to lounge around in a bathrobe, throwing away the respectable amount of chemistry Holden has with Hepburn. This is doubly frustrating, because the fact that David loves Sabrina is initially presented as an example of 20th-century modernism (a wealthy heir falling for a chauffeur’s daughter), but when Linus becomes the favourite, David’s character development gets a reset, reverting him back to the airhead from the beginning of the film.
Meanwhile, Bogart’s character can’t decide whether he’s a cross between a love-hating Bond villain and the “plastics” guy from The Graduate, or whether he wants to hang out in the Paris rain with Sabrina. Bogart’s performance feels surprisingly one-note – perhaps a result of getting the part after Cary Grant (a much better fit for this sort of movie) declined. If nothing else, Bogart’s famous “man’s man” vibe is simply a poor match for Hepburn’s cheerful, flighty quality. It's also hard to overlook their difference in age, which isn’t helped by a creepy scene where Linus passes along kisses from David to Sabrina, saying, “It’s all in the family”. No amount of leftover Casablanca coolness can make that okay, Bogie.
If there’s anyone to draw you to the film, it’s Hepburn. Her early scenes of infatuation with David or her newfound confidence upon returning from Paris are easy to root for. Even as the script lets her down in the third act (by being maddeningly vague about which brother she’s settled on), we’re still on her side. There’s a reason Hepburn’s evening gown shots from Breakfast at Tiffany’s are so iconic: even in lesser films, she has a way of drawing us in with a look or a word.
Bear in mind: Sabrina isn’t an example of Billy Wilder falling flat on his face. There’s enough studio professionalism on display here to make the movie into a worthwhile distraction, or maybe to fill out an Audrey Hepburn career retrospective. But we know from Wilder’s other work, like Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, and The Apartment, that he’s capable of more. Perhaps Sabrina was what we call a “paycheck movie” – something to pay the bills for the people involved (as talented as they may be) until a juicier project comes along.
We still see movies like that almost every week, and it’s been more than 60 years since Sabrina hit theatres – perhaps it’s simply a self-perpetuating Hollywood quirk. Even seemingly bulletproof names like Wilder, Hepburn and Bogart are prone to moments of weakness and mistakes – and who knows; maybe those mistakes eventually helped give us the movies we truly cherish.
Sabrina gets two and a half stars out of four.
Have you seen Billy Wilder’s Sabrina? If so, what did you think? Have you ever compared it to the 1995 remake starring Harrison Ford and Greg Kinnear? Join the discussion in the comments, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!