Sabrina (1954 + 1995)

Will They?/Won’t They?

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Never again will the screen see such grace as Audrey Hepburn. Marilyn is hot, but Audrey is beautiful. However its Audrey being the goddess that she is which brings about the major flaw in Sabrina – you cannot make Audrey Hepburn look like a scrawny chauffeurs’ daughter. It doesn’t matter what she wears, Audrey can make any piece of dowdy clothing look glamorous (later in the film she even makes a lumberjack shirt look feminine). After all, in the original stage play, Sabrina Fairchild was played by the down to Earth Margaret Sullivan. Despite this, the sheer enchanting screen presence of Audrey Hepburn, as well as her childlike innocence does help to some degree, overcome this suspension of disbelief. The opening of Sabrina couldn’t be more impossibly romantic – a clear sky with a full moon, Isn’t It Romantic playing the background and a forbidden love imposed by class differences. Well that is until things take a dark U-turn and Sabrina attempts to commit suicide by locking herself in a garage with multiple car exhaust pipes emitting carbon monoxide. Even in a moment as disturbing as this, a joke is still thrown in with that one popping exhaust pipe (likewise did Sabrina’s father ever discovering that suicide note?).

Humphrey Bogart in the role of business mogul Linus Larrabee gets an opportunity to show his flair for light comedy. Bogart is such a pleasure to watch in the many witty lines he delivers, in particular the inter-office memo he sends to his brother David via a car phone. Linus Larrabee is a benevolent capitalist and not the stereotypical archetype of the evil business owner, as he brilliantly sums up in an exchange he shares with David:

“A new product has been found, something of use to the world. A new industry moves into an undeveloped area. Factories go up, machines are brought in, a harbour is dug up and you’re in business. It’s purely coincidental of course that people who’ve never seen a dime before suddenly have a dollar and barefooted kids wear shoes and have their teeth fixed and their faces washed.”

Linus evens has connections to a military general who can get him a bazooka to test against his revolutionary plastic, showing he has some Elon Musk in him. Likewise unlike as seen in many screwball comedies of the 1930’s, the servants of the Fairchild family have a perfectly amicable and respectable relationship with their masters.

David Larabee (William Holden) is the polar opposite of his brother – a 1950’s Billy Madison who lives for hedonism. Holden looks rather ghastly with his bleached hair and the ugly dressing gowns which he wears throughout the film. Sabrina has been head over heels for David since childhood but her love of the man was always forbidden due to class, well until her transformation after spending two years in Paris. David does not appear to be much longer than Linus, which is odd as it’s mentioned at one point in the film that David had kissed Sabrina when she was nine during a time they were roller skating. I never quite get what Sabrina sees in the immature David – this goes for both the original and the remake (more on that later).

At its heart, Sabrina is a story about true love vs. romantic love. Sabrina may be romantically infatuated with David, but ultimately it’s Linus of whom she is destined to be with. The age difference between Audrey and her leading men in multiple films is often a topic of conversation with the casting of a 54-year-old Bogart as a romantic love interest to a 25-year-old Hepburn not being the most obvious choice. Changing social norms since the 1950s and the feminist movement have made it anathema for a woman to rely on a man for money or status, making older man/younger woman relationships age gaps more taboo in modern times. Personally, I’ve seen enough old films with relationship age gaps that I’m more used to it plus the argument can be made that many women simply prefer an older man. At the very least the movie does acknowledge this age difference (“Here I am going off on a sailboat to make an ass out of myself with a girl of 22”). Age aside, with Bogart’s arrogance and overly masculine voice, Audrey isn’t the most obvious choice to play off him – she’s not like Lauren Bacall or Katharine Hepburn. The argument can be made that the original casting choice of Cary Grant would have been more suitable for the part. Regardless these performers are two of my favourite movie stars of all time and they are a joy to watch together so I personally can’t complain at the end of the day.

That Billy Wilder wit is as strong as ever in Sabrina (“That good, that’s bad” – I can see where a certain Simpsons joke came from), with the film also including one of the most clever and witty methods in which a film got around the censorship of the day (“What rhymes with glass?”). On a technical level, it’s also notable that Sabrina was filmed in the 4:3 aspect ratio, despite being released in late 1954, making it one of the last Hollywood productions to do so as almost all movies at this point where being shot in various widescreen formats. Coming off the heels from Sunset Boulevard, Ace In The Hole and Stalag 17, I get the impression Billy Wilder wanted to do something more pleasant and straightforward with Sabrina. I don’t consider Sabrina to be one of Wilder’s best films but I do enjoy it despite its flaws and the relationship dynamics requiring much suspension of disbelief. When a rom-com sparks an interesting debate on whom the female lead should have ended up with, to an extent it has done its job. However, unpopular opinion time, I will argue that the 1995 remake of Sabrina directed by Sydney Pollack is a superior film. 

The remake of Sabrina carries the same themes and follows the same basic plot of the original but with some notable adjustments, the most prescient of these being Sabrina’s (Julia Ormond) transformation in Paris being far more significant. At the film’s beginning, Sabrina really is a scrawny, nerdy girl with a dreadful fashion sense and very long, unkempt hair. Her time in Paris takes up a significant portion of the film (this time working as a photographer for Vogue rather than going to a cooking school) in which she gets mentored by others and comes out of her shell. Symbolically her hair gradually gets shorter over the two year period and returns to the US unrecognizable (I’m just slightly disappointed the remake doesn’t include the attempted suicide scene). Unlike the original, the Paris scenes are filmed on location and are the most distinctly 90’s portion of the film with the fashions and music (nice cover of Love’s In Need Of Love Today). So who is the better Sabrina? I know its sacrilege to outrank Audrey Hepburn, but going from the standpoint on both superior writing and more appropriate casting, Ormond’s rendition of Sabrina does have greater depth, is more believable and is portrayed with a greater sense of vulnerability.

Who was the better Linus? You’re asking me to pit two of my favourite actors of all time against each other. Harrison Ford plays the part beautifully with his trademark comic grumpiness and a real sense of loneliness, and even with the 90’s setting, Ford’s Linus remains a conservatively dressed man with his glasses, dotted bowtie and Homburg hat. The remake also features a much more resentful relationship between David and Linus. In the original, Linus is not impressed with David but doesn’t harbour much resentment, whereas in the remake the relationship is far more antagonistic (“My life makes your life possible – I resent that – So do I!”). I do wish however they could have retained the benevolent capitalist aspect of his character as Bogart portrayed. I feel like going for a tie but I know that’s a cop-out so ultimately I will have to choose Ford once again due to the superior writing and more appropriate casting – Ormond and Ford are simply a more believable romantic pair.

Lastly who was the better David? Greg Kinnear does a good job at portraying the hedonistic sleaze of David, while his turnaround towards actually doing work at the end is a very nice comic touch. Yet even the additional aspect of the antagonistic relationship, I would choose Holden on the account of simply being a more charismatic and likeable screen presence. Likewise, I do particularly enjoy John Wood as Sabrina’s father, a real charmer of an English gentleman, while Paul Giamatti gets one of his earliest screen roles but it’s just a shame he’s given nothing to do. I’d even go as far as saying that Sabrina ’95 provides a greater feast for the senses. The location filming of the North-Eastern United States (notably including Martha’s Vineyard) with the gorgeous architecture alongside the breezy John Williams score, makes the film a very relaxing watch (I also have to ask, was the film’s poster inspired by that of Billy Wilder’s Fedora?). While I hate having to outrank these classic Hollywood legends, Sabrina ‘95 is a rare remake which remains a classy affair and outperforms the original.

The Electric Horseman (1979)

Fondathon 4 Text

Now I’ll Choose Your Outfit. Robert Redford in Electric Horseman

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Electric Horseman is a very old fashioned movie for the 1970s; Its a return to the type of movie made during Hollywood’s more innocent days and could have easily been a vehicle for an actor like Gary Cooper. There’s something about the movie that’s just very wholesome to it from the absence of sex, bad language and the innocent nature from the “that would never happen in real life” plot which hits all the emotional beats. A movie in which you’re rooting for a horse is going to have something inherently innocent about it. Even the opening shot of a running horse is very similar to the opening shot of Sydney Pollack’s earlier film They Shoot Horses Don’t They but they are, tonally, completely different.

The opening montage catalogues the story of rodeo star Sonny Steele (Robert Redford); a rise and fall story which echoes Walter Matthau’s final words in A Face in the Crowd. Sonny, a once legitimate figure is now nothing more than a mascot for a product he doesn’t even use. He is trapped in a world of corporate superficiality; no surprise then that the movie is set in Las Vegas of all places. Even the villains of The Electric Horseman are two dimensional, slimy businessmen who don’t have an ounce of empathy. They are about as cliché as it gets but in an enjoyable love-to-hate way.

Sonny’s horse Rising Star is a metaphor for Sonny himself; the horse’s story is essentially Sonny’s. When he talks about what the horse has been through and its desire to be free, he is talking about himself – A former champion who is leading a pampered life and has become no more than a corporate icon. It’s clear that Sonny has no sex or family, as evident from his recent divorcee just like how Rising Star has been sedated by drugs. Sonny is left with no choice but to try and break free from this existence and set Rising Star (and metaphorically himself) free because anything’s better than the living hell he is currently experiencing.

Jane Fonda’s role as Hallie is a throwback to the fast-talking, Hildy Johnson like news reporter. I also have to question if Fonda’s hairstyle and glasses had any inspiration on the look of the titular character in Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie three years later. The scenes between Redford and Fonda alone in the wilderness are reminiscent of classic screwball comedy in the age-old classic “they hate each other but love in love” scenario. Likewise one of my favourite scenes in the film involves Sonny giving passionate monologue to Hallie about the horses’ mistreatment unaware he’s being recorded. Once he thinks the recording has started he has nothing interesting to say (“He’s one of the great animals…in the history…of animals”). A lesson to filmmakers of any stripe really.

I also imagine the inclusion of Dave Grusin’s Disco Magic probably didn’t help the move when it came out in December 1979; six months after the Disco Demolition Night. However, The Electric Horseman is part of Hollywood’s urban cowboy phase the late ’70s and early ’80s. This oxymoronic combination does give the film one of the most unique action sequences I’ve ever seen as Sonny rides his horse against an onslaught of police cars and motorcycles through a small town (I’d like to see this in Grand Theft Auto).

The ending in which Sonny releases Rising Star into the wild is ridiculous. How long would a champion racehorse survive in the wilderness? It would probably die of starvation and loneliness and certainly not be immediately accepted by a wild herd. But at the end of the day, it still strikes an emotional heartbeat.

The Yakuza (1974)

Perhaps You’ve Heard of the Yakuza, the Poison Fists of the Pacific Rim. The Japanese Mafia!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

At the heart of The Yakuza’s theme of the clash between eastern and western cultures, is that of the two’s opposing views on forgiveness. In Japanese culture, forgiveness is something you must earn. In western culture as preached though Christianity, any action can be forgiven regardless of how heinous; go to a confession box at a church and your sins will be wiped away. The Japanese don’t understand this; as a westerner don’t understand it either. Only towards the end of the film does Harry Kilmer (Robert Mitchum) become fully assimilated into another culture, and truly realise so much pain he has caused to Ken Tanaka (Ken Takakura), and performs the Yakuza ritual of Yubitsume, cutting off his little finger.

I can’t imagine a better choice for the role of Harry Kilmer than Robert Mitchum. I believe his acting experience and background is what brings a great level of sincerity to the role. Throughout his career, he appeared in a number of World War II films, including those about the war in the Pacific and featuring the use of the racial slur “Jap”. It can be an interesting experience seeing classic era actors in roles after the 1960’s that weren’t ensemble disaster movies; movies which contrast the attitudes of their ’golden age’ work. I’ve read Robert Redford was considered for the role but I believe the role was suited for an older, world-weary actor like Mitchum; plus it’s an apt choice casting one of the icons of film noir in this neo-noir. What I also love about the film is the touching love story between Harry and his Japanese love Eiko Tanaka (Keiko Kishi), a love of two people from different worlds made forbidden due to family ties, made all the more poignant with Mitchum being superb at portraying characters who are tough yet also tender.

Hollywood has had a long fascination with the Far East, producing movies which aren’t entirely very thoughtful or sensitive; The Yakuza is the more well-researched effort, to say the least. Yet I could still see the modern day PC patrol will still find something to the uproar about. Cultural appropriation is apparent throughout the film. Westerners Harry Kilmer and his friend Wheat (Herb Edelman) are so engaged with Japanese culture and customs to the point that it is second nature to them; while the Japanese display westernised trends such as the wearing of western clothes, or take the scene in the nightclub in which My Darling Clementine being sung.

The appropriation just doesn’t extend to the characters; the 1970’s Hollywood aesthetic and music is combined with Japanese iconography. Dave Grusin’s score is superb, creating a world alien to westerners and also contributing to one of the classiest films of the 1970’s. The violence is portrayed in a classy, arty tone and not coming of gratuitous with an effective combination of gunfire and katana duels. Also, can a gun still remain in a person’s hand and fire after their arm has been chopped off? Either way, it looks cool.

The Yakuza acts like a time capsule of 1970’s urban Japan, just take the scene in which Harry walks through the streets of Tokyo at night to meet his old love after 20 years. The filmmakers clearly took full advantage of the Japanese locations at their disposal; the Kyoto International Conference Centre in which Harry meets ken’s brother is an incredible piece of architecture and that public bathing room, dam, I want to go there!

The Swimmer (1968)

This Is My Wagon, Man!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

It takes a lot for a movie to make feel legitimately depressed and to the point that I would have difficulty bringing myself to watch it again. I can say The Swimmer is one of two movies I’ve to date which have managed to have this impact with me, the other being Watership Down.

The Swimmer is what I like to call a jigsaw puzzle movie. It leaves the viewer confused at various characters’ actions and the unexpected dramatic shifts in emotion but at the very end, Lancaster’s swimming pool equivalent of a pub crawl starts to make sense. This gives The Swimmer much re-watch value as it is such a deep film, both as a character study and a commentary on the falseness of the American Dream, coming at the end of a decade which saw such values become disenfranchised. However, I would have difficulty bringing myself to watch again because it’s just so tragic beyond words. I’ve seen few other movies with an ending as pessimistic, unforgiving and unbearable as that of The Swimmer. No character redemption, just bang in your face, life sucks, deal with it. View before your eyes in horror at a human being who degrades to such a pathetic level and his lame attempts to defend himself against the scourge of others. When the movie, however, is not a tragic punch to the face, the characters act in such a bizarrely cheery manner and I found myself enjoying the essence of just being there among them in their idyllic yet somewhat unsettling surroundings.

I’ve yet to see Burt Lancaster deliver a performance that hasn’t impressed me and The Swimmer is no exception. One scene, for example, involves him becoming emotional over a hot dog wagon (yes, a hot dog wagon). With an actor of lesser talent, this scene would likely be laughable but Lancaster pulls it off effortlessly. Not to mention he remains shirtless throughout the entire movie, yet still retains his dignity as an actor. Lancaster’s character of Ned Merrill is character filled with so much regret by past experiences that he blindly acts as if nothing has happened, the movie’s portrayal of this is about as extreme and disturbing as it gets. The scene in which he gives a child a piece of bad life advice that “If you make believe hard enough that something is true, then it is true for you”, is a perfect piece of foreshadowing the movie’s conclusion. When you talk about The Swimmer, will you talk about yourself?