As I mentioned in my previous post, one of Billy Wilder’s strengths was as a director of performers in some instances coaxing some of the best turns from his actors. For example he was praised for getting a competent performance from Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot and he received similar recognition for getting a lot of his actors to play against type. One such star was Humphrey Bogart; best known for playing a string of antiheroes in war and crime movies who Wilder cast as the male lead in another of his Best Director movies, Sabrina. Although, during film Bogart was critical of Wilder’s direction and believed he was wrong for the role, he later apologised as he saw the brilliant final results that the director achieved.
In the film Bogart stars as Linus Larrabee; one of two sons of the wealthy Larrabee family alongside his more carefree, playboy brother David played by Wilder mainstay William Holden. The Sabrina of the title, played by Audrey Hepburn, is the daughter of the Larrabee family chauffeur who has been in love with David for years even if he sees her nothing more than a little girl. The film begins as Sabrina is about to depart for Paris but, after seeing David cavorting with his latest squeeze, she tries to end her life in her father’s garage. She’s saved by Linus, leaves for Paris and spends the next two years learning how to cook in France, gradually getting over David in the process. After becoming a refined lady in Paris, Sabrina returns and David is immediately taken with her despite the fact that he’s engaged to Elizabeth Tyson; a match primarily made in order to broker a profitable deal between the two families. Worried that Sabrina’s return will cause the merger to disappear, the more work-minded Linus decides to make a play for the chauffeur’s daughter as a ploy to keep her distracted until the wedding. As is always the way in movies, Linus ends up falling for Sabrina even though she still seems hooked on David. However, Linus eventually feels he has to come clean to Sabrina and reveals that he was planning on sending her back to Paris until Elizabeth and David had got married. Thankfully, this being a romantic comedy and all, everyone gets the ending they deserve and there is a lovely final scene aboard a boat heading to Paris.
As with Some Like it Hot, it’s clear that Wilder is a great director of comic moments and there are plenty to be seen during Sabrina. However, I found that there is a lot more character development in Sabrina and both the titular character as well as Linus feel like real people. This is a testament to Wilder, who adapted Samuel L Taylor’s play Sabrina Fair alongside the playwright and Ernest Lehman, as he excels as both co-screenwriter and director of a romantic film with two people you really want to get together. As I mentioned in my introduction, Bogart plays his part well; stoic and focused in the film’s early scenes, he makes sure Linus gradually drops his guard the more time he spends with Sabrina. There is a sort of world-weariness in Borgart’s performance that Wilder is able to bring out beautifully which bounces perfectly off the youthfulness of Audrey Hepburn. As much praise as I bestow upon Bogart for playing against type, make no mistake Sabrina is a film that belongs to its lead actress. A year after winning her Oscar for her performance in Roman Holiday, I think Hepburn was even more beguiling and completely lit up the screen as Sabrina. You completely brought into everything her character went through from her obsession with David to her growing feelings for Linus and I personally felt she portrayed her anguish at being lied to by the older Larrabee brother particularly well. Despite an almost thirty-year age gap between Hepburn and Bogart, the romance between Sabrina and Linus was completely believable and I felt they made a brilliant screen couple. Sabrina only lagged for me when William Holden was on screen as I felt his character of David was merely used as a plot device and wasn’t as well-drawn as either Sabrina or Linus. It’s a shame as Holden and Wilder have worked well together in the past and although the former did try there wasn’t a lot for his character to ultimately do in the film.
Sabrina was also a joy to look at, a glamorous film from beginning to end, I wasn’t surprised that the film was nominated for an art direction Oscar whilst Edith Head won an award for providing the various glamorous gowns that Audrey Hepburn wore during the movie. Audrey Hepburn was nominated for Best Actress that year however in the year were the race was focused on Grace Kelly in The Country Girl against Judy Garland in A Star is Born, she never had a chance. I personally felt that Bogart should have been nominated for his role in Sabrina at that year’s academy awards but instead he was recognised for his much more standard role as the antagonistic Captain in The Caine Mutiny. One element of both Wilder films that I’ve failed to mention up to now is the musicality with both the scores in Some Like it Hot and here in Sabrina adding to the comedy. Additionally, in Sabrina, the use of the iconic La Vie en Rose represents the lead character’s transformation and is brilliantly performed by Hepburn during the film. I’ve got one more film to watch from 1954 before I present my ultimate verdict on that year’s Best Picture line-up but I have to say I really enjoyed Sabrina; a film I had very little expectations about going into. Although it wasn’t a cinematic masterpiece, I found it to be an involving romantic comedy with two believable characters played by a couple of the best Hollywood stars of all time. Although William Holden let the movie down slightly, the script, style and general atmosphere of Sabrina overcame any minor issues and the film still feels fresh over sixty years after it was first released.
Next time we get to see what happens when Holden takes centre stage in a Wilder film as the director leads the actor towards his only Oscar win.