LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON, a box-office disappointment for Billy Wilder in 1957, can be seen as a link between the earlier Audrey Hepburn/Billy Wilder collaboration SABRINA and the standout 1961 Wilder comedy THE APARTMENT. Since I love THE APARTMENT and have several problems with SABRINA, my enjoyment of LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON falls somewhere in between.
One major improvement over SABRINA is Audrey Hepburn's character. In SABRINA, much time and footage is devoted to trying to convince us that Hepburn is the most charming young woman in the world, which is like trying to convince us that Buster Keaton is funny and Marylin Monroe has a voluptuous figure. Hepburn's charm should be a given, since she cannot help but exude class and charm in every single frame. It is what she did, it is what she was. However, that charm is much more effective when it is simply allowed to be without attention drawn to it. In LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON, Hepburn plays a sweet, simple, unpretentious girl who falls in love with a worldly businessman (Gary Cooper). The businessman finds her attractive but only as a plaything, a sex object to use during his trips to Paris. This is a more preferable setup than Hepburn playing a perfectly charming young woman whom men simply fall over.
What bothers me about LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON is Gary Cooper. It is said that the film failed because audiences thought Cooper looked much too old. That he does, but that it is not the worst flaw of the character. It is his self-centered, amoral approach to women. He is a love 'em and leave 'em character, which would be fine if the film offered more to play against him. Had he been able to woo every woman in the world except Hepburn, the film would have more of a center for viewers to hold on to. Instead, Hepburn falls in love with him immediately, and it is only late in the film that she decides she needs to make him jealous so that he will realize she is more than just a pretty face. The businessman character is despicable, barely even remembering Hepburn a year after their first tryst, and an aging Gary Cooper is all wrong for the role. Half the time, your heart breaks for the young girl, the other half you want to reach out and shake her and tell her how stupid she is for falling for such a lowlife. A forced ending tries to convince us that he really cares about her, even loves her, but it goes against everything we've been told about the character for two hours.
Still, and forgive me for bringing this up for the thousandth time in this review, but Hepburn's charm goes a long way in any movie, making even the clunkiest vehicles watchable, and Wilder directs the proceedings with his usually unintrusive craftsmanship that borders on perfection. Maurice Chevalier (talk about charm) and character actor John McGiver in his first film role are also both splendid in supporting roles. If only the script were better, and a more appropriate actor, such as William Holden, available to play the womanizing businessman. - JB