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GREAT SINNER, THE (director: Robert Siodmak; screenwriters: Ladislas Fodor/Christopher Isherwood/based on a story by Fodor & Rene Fulop-Miller; cinematographer: George Folsey; editor: Harold F. Kress; music: Bronislau Kaper; cast: Gregory Peck (Fedja), Ava Gardner (Pauline Ostrovsky), Melvyn Douglas (Armand LeGlasse), Walter Huston (General Ostrovsky), Ethel Barrymore (Granny), Frank Morgan (Aristide Pitard), Agnes Moorehead (Emma Getzel, pawnbroker), Ludwig Stessel (Hotel Manager); Runtime: 110; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Gottfried Reinhardt; MGM; 1949)
“Brings Dostoyevsky down to the level of soap opera.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

It’s high-gloss MGM fare (considered one of its prestige pictures) that’s based loosely on the Dostoyevsky novel, The Gambler. It’s written by Ladislas Fodor and Christopher Isherwood from the story by Fodor & Rene Fulop-Miller. The sin in The Great Sinner is gambling. The sin in the production is that it’s dull. German-born Hollywood émigré director Robert Siodmak (“The Spiral Staircase”/”The Crimson Pirate”/”The File on Thelma Jordon”) is clueless on how to direct this dreary period drama, that brings Dostoyevsky down to the level of soap opera. It was a bad bet for MGM to think this heavy-going and pointless addiction drama would come up a winner.

In the 1860s, in the casino resort town of Wiesbaden, Germany, a reformed gambling addict, Pauline Ostrovsky (Ava Gardner), tenderly nurses the talented Russian writer Fedja (Gregory Peck), who is a physical wreck. A flashback reveals how his obsessive love for Pauline led to his ruination. Traveling on the Moscow to Paris train, Pauline gets seated in Fedja’s compartment and the handsome lad has the hots for this sharp looking aristocratic lady even though they don’t converse. Instead of going onto Paris, he gets off with her in Wiesbaden. Pauline stays at the casino with her gambling addicted father General Ostrovsky (Walter Huston).

Fedja is turned off by gambling but decides to stay in Wiesbaden to write a novel about gamblers and see if he can make time with Pauline. He encounters the pathetic compulsive gambler and thief Aristide Pitard (Frank Morgan), a former math professor, who is loaned money by Fedja after the gambler stole his small bet on the roulette table and when instead of taking the train home returns to the casino and blowing a fortune, making bets only a crazy man would, Pitard blows his brains out.

After falling madly in love with the charming Pauline, Fedja learns the General has arranged Pauline’s marriage to Armand De Glasse (Melvyn Douglas), the casino’s heartless owner, in order to pay off his huge gambling debt to Armand. Thinking he can win Pauline back by getting the money her father owes, Fedja starts gambling. The foolish lovesick writer uses his life savings to stake his bets. Naturally, he loses and must borrow money from Armand to continue at the roulette table, and puts up his writings as security for the loan.

The film mercifully ends when the story returns to the present and we learn that Fedja’s novel about a gambler is a hit and he’s free of his gambling debts, and has also won the woman he loves.

At the end of this morality play we are supposed to be astonished to learn that gambling might give you a buzz, but it can lead to one losing his shirt, his money, his woman or his mind. The actors are up against a lame script and bombastic direction, and are left with the odds stacked against them so they have little chance to come out with even an ounce of dignity in this loser film.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”