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Possibly America's greatest director-writer, Billy Wilder has weathered a very spotty critical reputation by staying resolutely outside the prevailing cultural tide. He carried the aesthetic banner for his idol Ernst Lubitch through a number of movies that have become enduring gems, even if some were ignored on first release. As pictures got faster and more stupid, Wilder kept insisting on the power of the written word, and up until the early '70s was producing deft farces and insightful comedy-dramas. Under-appreciated films like Love in the Afternoon, Kiss Me Stupid, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, and Avanti! each have the Wilder magic of 'original screen creation.'
Sabrina is one of Wilder's biggest hits, a very modern-looking 'Lubitsch' style film. When Wilder consciously tries to be charming, he's in Lubitsch mode - you can tell because the old romantic standards fill the soundtrack. Here it's the song, 'Isn't it Romantic?'
Sabrina Fairchild (Audrey Hepburn) is just the chauffeur's daughter on the Long Island Larrabee estate, but her crush on the younger Larrabee heir David (William Holden) gives her false hopes that lead to a bungled suicide attempt. After a season in Paris to recover, she returns a changed woman, instantly attracting David's attention and raising the concern of his older brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart), the family workhorse. To maintain the viability of a proposed marriage-merger between David and the daughter (Martha Hyer) of another company, Linus connives to wean Sabrina from her attachment to David - by wooing her himself. Unfortunately, his technique is a little rusty ... and his own heart is more susceptible to Sabrina's tender charms than he knows.
What we have here is basically Cinderella, with a chauffeur daddy (John Williams) to remind Sabrina that she lives over a garage, and a trunkful of Paris fashions to provide the glitz needed to put Audrey, I mean, Sabrina, over as the most attactive thing imaginable. Wilder is a master of structure and symmetry in his screenplays, which have a balance and economy superior to most anything in the legit theater. Gags are never introduced and dropped; instead they pop up later in different forms, like echoes of humor. Verbal jokes do this frequently, but so do physical gags, the most obvious in Sabrina being the champagne glasses in William Holden's back pocket. Sabrina used the 'plastics' idea long before The Graduate, to represent the company business. Holden bounces on a big resilient sheet, and then uses another with an outhouse-like hole cut in it as a recuperative hammock. It has to do with the champagne glasses and Holden's rear end ... wish I could tell a joke like Wilder! A recurring motif through several Wilder films is the hat, or hat and umbrella, as a sign of success - he reused it again in The Apartment and One, Two, Three. Most every scene has some invention that other filmmakers have copped - Linus Larrabee's use of a tugboat to rendezvous with a lover fleeing on an ocean liner, for instance, was filched for the intermission curtain-ringer in Funny Girl.
With its classic-form script, and boasting 1954's model of femininity, Sabrina is simultaneously old-fashioned and progressive. But the famed acid mind of Wilder refuses to create a candy-coated, white-telephone world. Suicide attempt by carbon monoxide (getting more mileage from the 'car' theme, of course) was more evidence to some critics that Wilder was fundamentally sick, what with monkey funerals in Sunset Boulevard and the general venom of Ace in the Hole. Andrew Sarris in particular noted the trials that Wilder's put-upon heroines go through (embarassment, humiliation, suicide attempts), and called them cruelly brutal. Wilder does have a wide Black streak running through his work, but Sabrina's sad attempt to do away with herself now looks almost completely benign. Bad things do happen to people who don't deserve it, even sweet young women, in Wilder's world view, and that's what makes Sabrina better than a fairy tale. In this case, everything works out, but even 'Miss Perfect' Sabrina has moments where she feels like a cheap fool, or a fraud. And who says Cinderella has a guarantee of happiness after she marries the Prince, anyway?
Wilder isn't given much credit for visual elegance, yet he's a master at it. Always screaming that effects should be obvious ('What about subtleties, Billy?' 'Subtleties are great! Make them obvious, too!'), many of his most devastating images are full of subtlety. In Sabrina there's a great moment where a delighted Hepburn takes an elevator to Linus' penthouse office. The elevator floor lights go up and up, with the last one held superimposed for a moment right over her heart as she enters the dark office above ... representing the heart that Linus is about to break. Nobody ever seems to pick up on this terrific kind of thing in Wilder pictures.
Everybody else has written about the bad blood on the set, with a disgruntled Bogart angry because the script had no ending, convinced Holden would get the girl, convinced everyone else was being favored and he was being slighted. In the Wilder biographies they make special note of him needling his director (Wilder was no easy personality to get along with, so that's no condemnation). But one of Wilder's retorts was to tell his cranky leading man that if he wasn't happy, he could go work with 'one of those directors he could push around, like Nick Ray.'(?!) William Holden's gratitude for the plum roles in Sunset Boulevard and Stalag 17 shows in his taking of the 'thankless role', the guy who doesn't get the girl, when Wilder needed a solid player.
Paramount's DVD of Sabrina is handsome and clean, better than any print Savant has seen. That's perhaps not the greatest accolade, but with older films, it's sometimes hard to know just how good, good was. 1954 was a format changeover year for feature films; twelve months later they were all standardized at the new non-standard of 'protect for 1:85' and project it however you want.' Judging by the way the titles are clustered, Sabrina was probably meant to be projected as wide as 1:66, but it looks very comfortable at 1:37 flat. The disc includes a fairly tepid docu that has some interesting information but doesn't seem too carefully put together, and has a particularly weak ending. The box art is unusually unattractive ... for such a classy film. Wasn't there a single piece of color photography done of the stars?
One of Billy Wilder's frequent 'fairy tales for grownups', Sabrina is top-level entertainment, and a great DVD. MGM will soon be continuing with Wilder's UA classics (The Fortune Cookie is already out) and Savant hopes they get to his whole, wonderful catalog, post-haste.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Supplements: short docu, photo gallery
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 27, 2001