Sabrina - Centennial Collection Review

Of all Billy Wilder's films most often deemed "great," Sabrina is probably the one that's the least characteristic of the typically cynical director. Wilder's fingerprints are there, but you may have to look for them. More obvious is the heavy influence from Wilder's mentor Ernst Lubitsch. Like many of Lubitsch's best films, Sabrina concerns itself with the wealthy upper class, often sharply poking fun at them with the help of an outsider. The outsider here is only somewhat so, as Sabrina Fairchild, played with typical pixielike radiance by Audrey Hepburn, is the daughter of the Larrabee family chauffeur and she grew up living above the multicar garage with her father. When the film begins, using Wilder's classic voiceover method, Sabrina sets things up for us and we see that she's been in some form of love with David Larrabee (William Holden) for years. She's just a gangly little girl to the rich playboy, paying her no attention despite the obviousness of it being Audrey Hepburn sitting in that tree.

Sabrina is sent off to cooking school in Paris and a couple of years pass. When she returns, now looking fully like Ms. Hepburn, David then takes notice, but he's by now engaged to be married. That particular arrangement was choreographed by the elder Larrabee brother, Linus (Humphrey Bogart), who needed the would-be bride's family interest in sugar cane. Such pragmatism is wholly typical in the Billy Wilder universe. A query about what could possibly rhyme with "glass" for a poem and we're soon off to the film's central conflict - which, if any, Larrabee should Sabrina give her affections to, assuming a chauffeur's daughter is good enough for either. The class conflict question isn't emphasised as much as it probably would be in a Lubitsch film, but the idea is there and Wilder nonetheless drains his film of acidic realism to such a degree that you really do have to pay close attention to remember he directed it. Of course, the legions of young ladies who've made Sabrina a favourite for over half a century now could care less who was behind the camera so long as the lady in front of it looks nice in her designer dresses.

She absolutely does, maintaining that classic, untarnished beauty with the help of Hubert de Givenchy and Edith Head, who won possibly the easiest Oscar ever awarded for costumes she most likely didn't outfit. The sort-of irony to that Audrey Hepburn Cinderella purity here is that not only was she having a secret affair with Holden off-camera, but the Sabrina character shows little in the way of sense in her romantic choices. Truth be told, I do think Sabrina is an excellent, highly enjoyable film that manages to transcend its flaws, but there's a whole lot to dissect with an open-mouthed snarl and a raised eyebrow. Hepburn is Hepburn, ably doing the same cute thing she does in all her best romantic drama roles, but it's the character of Sabrina who seems deadened to common sense. The collective audience, I'd guess, roots for her to end up with neither David nor Linus because both men are undeveloped emotional adolescents. Our happy ending is unfortunately compromised by a couple of characters who don't deserve the precious Sabrina.

This is indeed more a problem with the characters than the performances. Holden gets the fun role of a sports car driving, champagne drinking irresponsible layabout. You expect David to grow over the course of the film, but he only marginally does. I'd still wager that a few champagne nights at the tennis court are in his future. The only sympathetic attribute going for him is the natural charm of William Holden, never mined better than Wilder in Sunset Blvd. and Stalag 17. This character, however, is pretty far removed from those seminal parts and he's just barely redeemable. Bogart's part of Linus veers in another direction, especially given the actor's persona, but he's also far from being warm and fuzzy. The consensus seems to be that Bogart is miscast, in a role originally offered to Cary Grant. Bogart was also apparently not overly cordial on the set and had some conflicts with Wilder. I'd instead posit that only the Bogart persona is miscast, in the sense that Linus Larrabee isn't the type of character we're used to seeing him play. Bogart was a fine actor, though, and he gives Linus something most movie stars wouldn't have by being constantly grumpy and uncharming. These unlikable attributes can be recognised as part of Bogart's performance and he plays it quite well as a lonely, business first sad sack who cares more for stock numbers than romantic liaisons. He seems to surprise himself in the slow fall for Sabrina, even initially disregarding his feelings possibly out of habit. Plus he looks ridiculous in that Yale college boy outfit, perhaps even more so than Bogart would've admitted.

Though I'm not familiar with the original play, entitled Sabrina Fair and written by Samuel Taylor who also received a writing credit on the film, I wonder if Wilder was more interested in exploring the title character than fixing the Larrabee brothers' flaws. This was his last film at Paramount, the end of a contract upset by some major disagreements over Ace in the Hole and, especially, Stalag 17, and he was still in a very commercial stage of his career. Wilder's mid-fifties films tended to be proven adaptations of popular stage hits, with Sabrina immediately followed by The Seven Year Itch, slyly mentioned in this film despite being made for another studio. Since there are limited Wilder signatures in both story and product, the director's motivation in making the picture would seem to be twofold. One, he may have been angling for a hit to up his commercial prospects. Ace in the Hole, just three years earlier, had been a major flop of the sort that could set back a career out of pure hatred. Secondly, there was the matter of that Paramount contract that he had to fulfill. After Stalag 17 and the studio's reluctance to upset the German audience with the film's portrayal of Nazis, something that deeply upset Wilder who lost his mother to a concentration camp, the director knew he was done on the lot. Sabrina, with the added attraction of Paramount's newest star Audrey Hepburn in her first role since winning the Academy Award for Roman Holiday, probably seemed like a can't-miss prospect. And it was, raking in good box office numbers and earning six Oscar nods including ones for Wilder's writing and directing and another for Hepburn.

It's also been fondly remembered and retained a unique popularity over the years. The foremost reason there is probably Hepburn, but I do want to stress how entertaining the picture remains. The flaws seem more obvious in analysing than while watching. You could say that Sabrina lends itself to being enjoyed rather than discussed. Wilder often resisted what he deemed Freudian analysis on his films, but most actually do invite that kind of scrutiny. I'm not sure Sabrina does, however. Some of the given Wilder tropes of a suffering female, complete with terribly inept suicide attempt, who inserts herself into an affair are certainly present here. Holden's presence may help to remind us it's a Wilder picture. A few choice bits, things like the elder Larrabee's olive fetish and some of the too-brief scenes at the cooking school do seem straight from Wilder, but the film could otherwise have been directed by at least half a dozen others.

It's even common to reference Sabrina as Wilder's most romantic film, but I think this falls into a superficial trap. On the surface, Sabrina is indeed a deeply romantic movie where the Hepburn character flits between the Larrabees with the confusing intention of love and marriage. Yet, the resolution is satisfying to no one. Why would we the audience want Sabrina, a character who's entirely charming and cute without encroaching on annoyance, to end up with either of the Larrabee brothers? Surely she'd be better off with someone else, someone less detestable. By comparison, Wilder gave Hepburn another role where she yet again (as would be a trend in her career) found romance with an older man, one who seemed to appreciate her, in Love in the Afternoon just a few years later. Both Avanti! and Irma La Douce must also factor into any discussion involving Wilder's most romantic films. Moreover, the touching courtship between C.C. Baxter and Fran Kubelik in The Apartment is surely the only correct response when deciding what the most romantic of all Wilder's films might be. Sabrina is sweet and easygoing, but it's hardly romantic in the sense of having two parties whom we actively wish for their happiness together.

There's not a whole lot of humour here either, leading again to the idea that the film accomplishes much of its charm via intangible qualities that cannot be sufficiently explored by the written word. Wilder's pacing, Hepburn's screen presence and the star qualities of Holden and Bogart despite their characters' shortcomings all combine to lift the film up when it could have easily failed had any of these ingredients been missing. The deficiencies are almost entirely risen above here, and Wilder fashions something that adds up to more than the sum of its parts. Upon watching the movie, I get the assurance that Billy Wilder could have excelled as a strictly commercial filmmaker had that been the path he chose. The artistic spoils are spread across the performances enough that it seems strange to classify Sabrina as a Wilder picture. It is, if just barely, but the Audrey Hepburn quotient that's allowed for continued durability is probably more deserved. That realisation can be difficult for Wilder fanatics, almost making him a director for hire here, but it's supported by what's on screen. If you take Wilder off the picture it could still be pretty good, but eliminating Hepburn would've probably doomed it to a status of being minor and forgotten.

The Discs

Paramount seems to have caught the spine number bug quite late in the DVD game. The studio, which now owns just a couple of its sound productions made prior to 1950, has introduced a new line of R1 special editions christened the Centennial Collection. The two-disc sets are packaged in a standard size keepcase with illustrated 8-page booklets inside and a slipcase housing it all. Sabrina is spine number 3. The artwork utilising heavy, black borders seen above on this page represents the slipcase while the cover art for the inner case looks like this. The whole package certainly wins points for being classy, and the menus retain the same elegant look as the artwork.

Presented in the full frame 1.33:1 aspect ratio (a deviation from the 1.75:1 it may have originally been composed for) and on a dual-layered disc, this transfer of Sabrina looks exceptionally good. I've not seen the film on any other DVD so I can't say whether the new disc is an improvement, but it absolutely meets every criteria I'd imagine for a film of this age. The quality is simply fantastic, with impressive contrast and detail and a very clean picture. The progressive transfer is one of the better black and white outings I've encountered from Paramount. There may be some boosting in the brightness levels, and it looks very consistently bright throughout the film, but not to a degree of distraction.

The English Dolby Digital two-channel mono track is clean and free from any hiss or pops. The distinctive score sounds excellent without getting in the way of the dialogue. Everything sounds clear as a bell and with consistent volume levels. Spanish and French dubs are also included, as are white-coloured subtitles in all three languages.

The only bit of extra material on disc one is a short preview for the most recent DVD release of It's a Wonderful Life (0:37). The second disc, which is single-layered, is much more generously outfitted. I was initially weary of the many featurettes that populate these Centennial Collection releases, fearing of how fluffy and insubstantial they might be. It turns out some actual care was put into the bonus features and the material is largely worthwhile, if harmless. All the new featurettes are presented in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for widescreen televisions. They're all subtitled in English, French and Spanish. Let's get out the magnifying glass:

"Audrey Hepburn: Fashion Icon" (17:33) - A breezy look at the actress's influence on a handful of interviewed fashion designers and even includes a couple of mini fashion shows with Audrey-inspired designs. This is not the type of thing I particularly enjoy and its whiplash editing is sometimes disconcerting, but fans of Hepburn will probably be pleased.

"Sabrina's World" (11:26) - The real-life setting of Glen Cove, Long Island is explored by historians and area figures, and compared now with how it was at the time of the film shoot, making for an interesting peek into how the other half lived.

"Supporting Sabrina" (16:33) - Turns the spotlight on a few of the supporting players in the film, including John Williams, Nancy Kulp, Ellen Corby, Marcel Dalio, Walter Hampden, and Martha Hyer. This is the kind of special feature I'd like to see more often on classic films, as familiar character actors rarely get their due.

"William Holden: The Paramount Years" (29:49) - Straightforward biography of one of the studio's most popular leading men, featuring interviews with Stefanie Powers and Pat Crowley, among others. It's a little generic and obvious, but still a nice appreciation.

"Audrey Hepburn: In Her Own Words" (11:44) - Carried over from the previous release and titled "Sabrina Documentary" on the back of both cases, this featurette is of limited actual worth and serves more as an overview of very basic information on the film than anything interesting about either Sabrina or Audrey Hepburn. This is definitely not the 1993 UNICEF tribute with the same title.

"Behind the Gates: Camera" (5:09) - Part of a series included in all the Centennial Collection releases thus far where a particular aspect of Paramount's history is briefly discussed. This informative little slice is concerned with the various changes to the camera process over the years, including a brief look at VistaVision.

"Paramount in the '50s" (9:37) - Found on several DVD releases now, including all the Centennial Collection titles, and probably unnecessary even once, the self-congratulatory run through the decade includes mentions of the studio's hits like Sunset Blvd., A Place in the Sun, Shane, Sabrina, and others.

Galleries - On the disc, four small photo galleries are included for Production, Movie, Publicity and Premiere.

Booklet - An eight-page booklet can be found inside the case and is comprised of two written pages of informative notes and various production stills.

Final Thoughts

Sabrina is the type of classic film that essentially sells itself due to an enormous and enduring popularity largely built around Audrey Hepburn. As such, it's surprising that the last R1 release was eight years ago, and one hardly endowed with ample bonus material. This new edition comes to the rescue by earning high marks all around. It's part of Paramount's new Centennial Collection, presumably intended to honour the upcoming hundredth anniversary of the studio. The retail price is a bit higher than typical Paramount catalog releases, but I think Sabrina is probably worth the upgrade.

8 out of 10
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out of 10

Last updated: 18/04/2018 21:35:59

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