Billy Wilder’s SABRINA (1954)

Inducted into the National Film Registry: 2002

Academy Award wins: Best Costumes

As a director, Billy Wilder was instinctively drawn to stories that subscribed to that distinctly American conceit: that whatever class you’re born into, you always have the innate power to better your station in life.  Wilder himself was living proof, working his way up from a lowly European refugee to one of the most acclaimed filmmakers in the United States.  His best works concern the aspirations of the middle class, be it the starving Hollywood screenwriter of SUNSET BOULEVARD(1950), the calculating insurance salesman of DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), or the put-upon office drone of THE APARTMENT (1960).  Shortly after the reinvigorating success of 1953’s STALAG 17– a film that found Wilder taking a break from his study of contemporary American life to further grapple with the lingering specter of World War 2– he was back in theatres with an altogether different comedy of class distinction.  This film was SABRINA (1954), notable for its bewitching performance by fledgling starlet Audrey Hepburn, as well as its look at a bygone social era at the start of its decline.

Adapted by Wilder and Samuel Taylor from Taylor’s play of the same name (and further refined by writer Ernest Lehman when Wilder’s rigorously collaborative nature burned Taylor out), SABRINA is an old-fashioned romantic comedy about misplaced infatuation and rigid social constructs.  A fairytale-style voiceover by Hepburn as the titular Sabrina Fairchild introduces us to Glen Cove, a small hamlet located along the Old Money haven of Long Island’s Gold Coast.  The daughter of a prim and proper chauffeur, Sabrina has spent her life on the sprawling estate of the Larrabee family, a veritable dynasty of high-powered industrial tycoons.  She’s grown up watching their lavish parties and glamorous balls from afar, pining for the rakish scion David Larrabbee (William Holden) and dreaming of the day he’ll realize that she exists.  Her father (John Williams) takes pity on the poor girl and sends her away to cooking school in Paris, where she subsequently blossoms into a confident and cultured young woman.  Upon her return home to Glen Cove after two years abroad, she finds her transformation has the intended effect on David, who suddenly can’t seem to get enough of her despite his engagement to the heiress of a plastics empire.  Unbeknownst to Sabrina, David’s impending marriage was engineered by older brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart) as part of a massive business deal that would inflate their fortunes ever higher.  Sensing that David’s romance with Sabrina could derail the whole operation, he takes advantage of a happenstance injury that sidelines David and inserts himself into the equation with Sabrina by taking her out on David’s behalf.  During their time together, Linus attempts to sabotage the relationship and manipulate Sabrina into moving back to Paris– but what he doesn’t count on is falling in love with Sabrina himself.  Before he even realizes it, Linus becomes caught up in a passionate love triangle that will force him to choose between his affections for Sabrina or his commitment to the Larrabbee corporation’s bottom line.

SABRINA arguably boasts one of the finest casts ever assembled for a Wilder film, headlined by Hepburn in a role that would boost her celebrity considerably.  Her ethereal, almost-alien physicality is effortlessly beguiling, convincingly reflecting her character’s artistic sensitivity and dreamy lovesickness.  The role of Sabrina would turn Hepburn into an international fashion icon, thanks in large part to costumes designed by French couture icon Hubert de Givenchy and legendary film costumer Edith Head (who won an Oscar for her work here).  However, to focus solely on Hepburn’s sartorial contributions to SABRINA does a disservice to her larger efforts in redefining the rags-to-riches/Cinderella archetype for the twentieth century  Hepburn’s petit, waifish charms stood in stark contrast to the buxom blondes of Hollywood’s golden era, providing an alternative role model for young women around the world while broadening the conversation about modern femininity in pop culture.  Silver screen icon Humphrey Bogart delivers one of his final performances as Linus Larrabee, the heir to the Larrabbee industrial fortune.  Known primarily for gangster pictures and hard-edged noir types, SABRINA marks a distinct deviation from the norm for old Bogie– requiring him to play it straight as a humorless businessman married to his career.  While his performance is remembered fondly by audiences, he was reportedly unhappy throughout production– he thought he was utterly wrong for the part, he couldn’t stand his co-stars, and he resented the thought of being Wilder’s backup choice to the director’s initial pick, Cary Grant.  For what it’s worth, Bogie’s simmering acrimony for Holden in particular makes for a convincingly tense sibling rivalry.

In his third of several performances for Wilder, Holden went blonde to play the mischievous playboy and object of Sabrina’s infatuation, David Larrabbee.  A three-time divorcee about to embark on his fourth marriage, David lives a fast-paced life of leisure– slowing only to lust over the beautiful women like Sabrina who cross his path.  Interestingly enough, Holden and Hepburn’s natural chemistry gave way to a real-life, albeit short-lived, romance during the film’s making.  Holden’s creative chemistry with Wilder is also palpable, having worked frequently with the director throughout the early 1950’s.  SABRINAwould be the last collaboration between the two for thirty four years, until 1978 would find them back together again on the director’s late-career feature, FEDORA.  Of SABRINA’s supporting cast, veteran character actors John Williams and Walter Hampden stand out– the former as the aforementioned Larrabee family chauffeur and Sabrina’s father, and the latter as the perpetually-sauced Larrabee patriarch.  Both men frown upon the union of Sabrina to either Larrabee boy, but alas they are nothing but the stubborn old guard refusing to give way to the new.

SABRINA’s cinematography and visual presentation is fairly consistent with Wilder’s established utilitarian aesthetic, thanks to the director’s third collaboration with Charles Lang (who previously shot ACE IN THE HOLE (1951) and FOREIGN AFFAIR (1948).).  By shooting on 35mm black and white film in the 1.75:1 aspect ratio, Wilder demonstrates a firm grasp in widescreen compositions for the first time.  SABRINA is a sterling example of the high-gloss, soft-focus American studio film of the romantic Golden Era, with a polished, high-contrast lighting scheme dialed to precision thanks to the control afforded by Wilder’s preference for shooting on soundstages.  Wilder makes full use of his frame’s expanded real estate, building upon his unadorned, workman-like aesthetic with a much livelier technical approach that incorporates sweeping dolly and crane movements as well as static compositions that emphasize depth of focus.  While Wilder’s philosophy towards camera movement is conventionally identified by his restraint, he acquiesces somewhat to SABRINA’s demand for regal treatment– infusing the narrative with a sweeping romanticism at odds with the observational misanthropy of his previous work.  For the most part, Wilder continues his employment of the in-camera cutting techniques impressed on him by mentor Doane Harrison, but his approach for SABRINA deviates in that Wilder supplied himself with more coverage than usual.  As such, Wilder and editing partner Arthur P. Schmidt cut between setups more frequently than they have before, infusing the film with a brisk pace.  SABRINA’s lighter-than-air tone is complemented by composer Frederick Hollander’s romantic score, which adapts Edith Piaf’s seminal song “La Vie En Rose” in orchestral, anthemic fashion.


Wilder’s character as a writer was shaped by his barbed sense of humor, and SABRINA is full of little moments that highlight this aspect of his artistic identity.  Take, for instance, the sequence at the beginning of the film where the lovesick Sabrina’s suicide attempts are foiled in increasingly humorous ways.  It takes a true rapier wit to effortlessly stick the landing on such a complex, loaded joke.  His adoption of English as a second language gave Wilder an appreciation for the nuances and peculiarities of the tongue that us Americans take for granted, affecting his writing with an earthy theatricality and idiosyncratic cadence.  Just as Wilder delighted in picking apart the absurdities of the English language, so too did he expend lavish attention on the absurdities of daily American life.  The typical Wilder protagonist is a cog in the wheel of industrial modernity, usually caught up in a moment of enlightenment that allows him or her to stand apart as an individual.  A common trajectory emerges, charting the protagonist’s self-identification as he grows from defining himself by his occupation to a new definition that imbues him with value as a principled individual.  This is certainly the case withSABRINA’s three leads: Linus’ cold pragmatism reinforces his status as a titan of industry, Sabrina’s artistic sensitivities are manifest in her career as a gourmet cook educated in France, and David’s inability to commit on an emotional level is signified by his total disdain for work of any kind.  Wilder visually reinforces this idea in his films with the use of uniforms, evidenced in SABRINA with the plain frocks worn by the help, Thomas Fairchild’s starched chauffeur suits, and even the elegant white dinner jackets donned by the Gold Coast’s aristocratic leisure class.

The iconography of uniforms is an effective shorthand for the most central of Wilder’s artistic conceits: class distinctions and conflict.  SABRINA’s gilded setting naturally opens the door for Wilder to indulge in further explorations of the subject from the perspective of a poor outsider looking in.  This degree of remove allows Wilder to make astute observations about the nature of class and privilege via the avatar of his characters, a notable instance being when the chauffeur describes the invisible constructs of class interaction to Sabrina: “there’s a front seat and a back seat… and a window in between”.  Wilder then proceeds to position Sabrina as the very reflection of midcentury American ideals: someone gifted with the ability to pass through that window with ease; someone able to transcend the trappings of the caste she was born into and reinvent herself in any number of ways.

SABRINA finds Wilder working in top form once again, having built himself back up after the disappointment of ACE IN THE HOLE and the modest success of STALAG 17.  The release of the film marked the end of his longstanding contract with Paramount– after the personal slights he endured at the hands of the studio during the making of STALAG 17, he elected not to renew their partnership.  Despite the bad blood, Wilder certainly left Paramount with a hell of a parting gift: one last financial and critical hit, not to mention to the prestigious windfall from a slew of Oscar nominations for Wilder’s screenplay and direction, Hepburn’s performance, Lang’s cinematography, Walter H. Tyler and Hal Pereira’s production design, and Head’s costumes.  It would be further honored in 2002, when it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.  A seminal work in Wilder’s filmography, SABRINA offers us yet another glimpse of the legendary director in his wheelhouse, commanding iconic performances from his stellar cast while effortlessly conjuring up some of the most unforgettable moments in cinematic history.  Simply put, SABRINA is pure movie magic of the highest order– an effervescent piece of pop entertainment executed with class, wit, and vision.

SABRINA is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Warner Brothers.


Produced by Billy Wilder

Written by Billy Wilder, Samuel Taylor, Ernest Lehman

Director of Photography: Charles Lang

Production Designer: Walter H. Tyler, Hal Pereira

Costumes: Edith Head

Edited by: Arthur P. Schmidt

Music by: Frederick Hollander