Judge Jason Panella watched this thing so many times and still can't find the talking cat.
"Democracy can be a wickedly unfair thing, Sabrina. Nobody poor was ever called democratic for marrying somebody rich. "
By my estimation, Billy Wilder has one of the most consistent runs of great films in American cinema history—and one of the most varied stylistically. Over twenty years, Wilder made a whip-smart war film (Stalag 17), a cutting-edge social commentary (The Lost Weekend), a pitch-black comedy (The Apartment), a genius screwball classic (Some Like It Hot), a groundbreaking entry into the film noir canon (Double Indemnity), a courtroom drama (Witness for the Prosecution), and one of the most daring cross-genre masterpieces released during Hollywood's Golden Age (Sunset Boulevard). The fairytale-like Sabrina fits nicely into that eclectic mix, and—like most of Wilder's movies during this era—is a fantastic film. It's good to report that Paramount's Sabrina (Blu-ray) release is stellar.
Facts of the Case
Sabrina Fairchild (Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's) is the shy daughter of the chauffeur working for the wealthy Larrabee family. Since she was a young girl, Sabrina's been in love with David Larrabee (William Holden, Bridge on the River Kwai). Since he's busy burning through relationships with fashionable women faster than he can down bottles of cognac, David has paid the quiet girl no mind. Sabrina's father recognizes that nothing but heartbreak is in store for her, so shuffles her off to culinary school in Paris.
Two years later, Sabrina returns to the Larrabee estate on Long Island as a sophisticated and outgoing young woman. David soon takes notice, but so does his older brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart, Casablanca). David is engaged to the daughter of an industry magnate, and Linus is worried his brother's roaming eyes will endanger the business deal at the core of the upcoming marriage. When both brothers fall for Sabrina, which Larrabee will win her affection?
One of the things I've always loved about Sabrina is how evenly balanced Billy Wilder keeps it. It initially steps out as a contemporary fairy tale, a romantic comedy spin on "The Ugly Duckling" set among the gilded mansions of Long Island's North Shore. Like many of Wilder's other films, there's a bit of sourness that tempers the movie's sweetness. There's also another commonality with many of Wilder's other movies: the focus on the writing.
Which is surprising, in a way. Sabrina was co-written by Wilder and Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest), and based on Samuel A. Taylor's play Sabrina Fair. Taylor had initially teamed up with Wilder on the adaptation of his play, but soon jumped ship after quarreling with the director. Wilder famously began principal photography on this picture with an unfinished script, though, and would often cobble together scenes moments before rolling the camera. This wasn't the director's usual modus operandi, but he somehow made it work here. Sabrina is a sharp film that does not feel like it was essentially written on the fly. Scenes are layered with jokes and social satire, yet still hold fast to the romantic core of the story with little cynicism. When the movie hints at some dark undercurrents—the despair that seems to come with privilege is a recurring theme—it makes the optimistic trajectory more pronounced. The movie's sense of humor has aged well, too—some of the jokes are just genius, and Wilder plants some slapstick moments early enough in the film to let the eventual payoff land perfectly.
Wilder also picked the cast perfectly. As a follow-up to her career-making role in 1953's Roman Holiday, Sabrina is perfect: her presence is dazzling, and she gets to show off her acting chops next to screen legends like Holden and Bogart. Wilder cast the two male leads against type (as he often did), which also pays off. Holden's David is a silly ball of energy while Bogart's Linus is thoughtful and reserved, and the actors really knock it out of the park—so much so that the drastic age differences in the love triangle between Sabrina, Linus, and David are believable. The movie is also packed with a fantastic roster of character actors, including John Williams (Dial M for Murder) as Sabrina's manner chauffeur father, Ellen Corby (The Waltons) as Linus's secretary, and Walter Hampden (All About Eve) as the Larrabee patriarch (who also has some of the best running gags in the movie).
It's hard to find fault with this movie, but I think the movie could have cut five minutes off the runtime—some of the "Who will she pick?" material near the end of the movie feels like a retread. Still, this is an endlessly enjoyable movie, a near-perfect work from an absolute master.
Paramount's Sabrina (Blu-ray) befits such a classic film. The 1.78:1/1080p non-anamorphic widescreen transfer looks incredible. While there's some natural grain, the image is consistently sharp and free of any noticeable defects. Charles Lang Jr.'s (Some Like It Hot) black-and-gray cinematography stands out, especially in some of nighttime scenes. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track is also remarkable. Dialogue is favored in the mix, naturally, and the track blends in the soundtrack evenly. This is an excellent looking and sounding release. While all of the extras have been imported from previous DVD releases of the film, they're still quite good. Here's a rundown of the included extras:
• "Audrey Hepburn: Fashion Icon" (17:35)—A look at
Hepburn's influence on the fashion industry, especially as a contrast to the
typical female body types during the era.
Sabrina is a classic for a reason, and the great Billy Wilder film gets a suitably great Blu-ray release from Paramount.
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