This review was originally written in 2008 for DVDTalk.com.
Audrey Hepburn's second film was the first of hers I saw, though if I recall I watched Sabrina for Humphrey Bogart, whom had become a bit of an obsession by then. I was also starting to learn a little something about director Billy Wilder through a blooming interest in film noir, so it was an unexpected twist in my movie-going plot that these two gentlemen would be upstaged by the gamine up in the tree of this romantic comedy.
Sabrina (Hepburn) is the chauffeur's daughter, a gawky teen who hides in the bushes spying on David Larrabee (William Holden), the youngest and the wildest son of the rich Larrabee family. By contrast, David's older brother, Linus (Bogart), is all stuffed shirts and responsibility. He runs the family company and is more likely to race through numbers and statistics than he is to race the roadster that David is so fond of. Ironically, it's only Linus that notices Sabrina, finding her in the throes of a dramatic suicide over David's cluelessness. Sure, Linus doesn't realize that this silly kid is being serious, but at least he knows her name.
All of this takes place on the eve of Sabrina's departure for Paris, where she will spend two years at a cooking school learning all about soufflés while also learning all the ways of the world that a girl can only acquire in France. She returns to Long Island a sophisticated seductress, ready to claim David as her own. The one wrinkle: Linus has promised David to the daughter of a sugar cane magnate so the Larrabees can get their hands on all the sugar they need for a new plastic compound they are pioneering. Seeing the thrice-married David about to go off message yet again, Linus runs interference, pretending to entertain his baby brother's fickle yearnings while keeping Sabrina occupied. Of course, no numbers or charts can prepare him for Cupid's arrow, and a legitimate love affair blooms in the unlikeliest of places.
Bogart is at his hound-dog best in this picture. Put the man in a tailored suit and take him out of the rough-and-tumble urban and wilderness environments he is better known for, and he actually cuts quite a dashing figure as an aging Prince Charming. Sure, there is a disparity in the years between him and Audrey Hepburn, but it doesn't seem nearly as pronounced as the age gap between her and some of her other leading men. (Wilder would pair her with Gary Cooper in Love in the Afternoon three years later, and it's never quite right; the pair are loving in two entirely different afternoons.) Perhaps it's Bogart's subtle vulnerability that makes it work. His Linus is a lonely man who may know plastics and even how to negotiate social mores as if they were boardroom gambits, but whom has ignored his heart as a result. Just as much as Sabrina needs to be rescued from that cad David, Linus needs someone to rescue him from himself. If there is a bit of a fatherly air to his schooling of the ingénue, the ingénue must also play mother to a boy who is still emotionally underdeveloped. Just look at the scene where Linus tries to dress up in his old college sweater: it's like he's swapped places with Sabrina, trying to look young much in the same way she's trying to appear grown up.
Audrey Hepburn is as delightful as can be in the film. To her acting credit, she is almost capable of entirely conquering her own natural glamour to make the teenaged Sabrina appear gawky and naïve. This also allows her to pull off the character's return from Paris, where she must first look like a little girl playing dress up only to reveal she truly is sophisticated in spite of herself. As romances go, one couldn't ask for a smarter director than Billy Wilder, who realizes that when falling in love, the reactions we show to one another aren't nearly as telling as the ones we think no one sees. When the David-Sabrina-Linus triangle begins, we can chart the various emotional upheavals on the dancefloor by the way a character's face changes amidst the turn of a slow dance. Thus, an unsuspecting Sabrina can enter a spin out of love and come around to face us again in love.
As with most Billy Wilder movies, Sabrina moves at a brisk pace, teasing the viewer along in ways that are never obvious or manipulative, even when we should be able to see the romantic outcome a mile off. Wilder co-wrote the screenplay with Ernest Lehman and Samuel Taylor, who originally wrote Sabrina as a stageplay, and he knows where all the pieces go. The director has an inherent storytelling instinct for when the narrative can be diverted into a humorous aside and when it needs to get down to serious business. At its core, Sabrina is a Cinderella story, but the fun twist is that the husband she's going to meet at the ball is not the one she expects, and as the audience, we get to go along for the ride as Sabrina figures it all out.