Saturday 25 July 2020

Movie Review: The Great Sinner (1949)

A grand drama and romance set in the world of compulsive gamblers, The Great Sinner is awash with human failings and sentimentality.

It's the late 1800s, and writer Fedya (Gregory Peck) is bedridden and hallucinating, seemingly near death. His lover Pauline (Ava Gardner) finds his recently completed manuscript and starts reading. The rest of the story unfolds in flashback. 

Fedya is heading to Paris when on a whim he disembarks at the resort town of Wiesbaden, Germany, just to stay close to the beautiful Pauline, who beguiled him on the train. He discovers she is a professional gambler, spending her evenings playing roulette at the lavish casino operated by Armand de Glasse (Melvyn Douglas), and her late nights playing high stakes card games in private hotel rooms. Her father General Ostrovsky (Walter Huston) is also a good-natured gambling addict.

Fedya falls deeply in love with Pauline, and although fascinated by the gambling culture, he resists partaking. He witnesses the desperate disintegration of Aristide Pitard (Frank Morgan), an elderly gambler who loses everything including the will to live. But when Fedya understands that Armand has a stranglehold on both Pauline and the General due to accumulated debts, he ventures to the roulette table to try and win a fortune to buy Pauline's freedom.

A prestige production from MGM, The Great Sinner is inspired by the Fyodor Dostoevsky novel The Gambler, with a script co-written by literary heavyweights Christopher Isherwood, Austrian René Fülöp-Miller and Hungarian Ladislas Fodor. Featuring luxurious sets and hundreds of extras populating a playground resort where the extremely wealthy prey on the luckless, the film shimmers with corrupted and damaged spirits.

Director Robert Siodmak stays close to the main theme of love as a powerful force capable of pushing Fedya into a gambling death spiral. Whether love can also pull him out is the subject of the final act, but at all times The Great Sinner features heightened emotions and near-instantaneous addiction triggers. The appeal of compulsive betting is presented as less of a process and more a jarring on-off switch, and Fedya is not the only character who drops into gambling's clutches with remarkable speed.

With all the film's components burdened by talkative weight, other more abstract but still heavy-handed currents swirl, including religious symbolism and the confluence of physical and mental health.

Gregory Peck is sturdy enough to carry the role of Fedya and convince as a strapping young lad transforming from upright to flat on his back, physically, emotionally and metaphorically. His euphoric scene commanding the roulette wheel into yielding a fortune is quite spectacular. Ava Gardner as Pauline arcs in the opposite direction, from frivolous irresponsibility to the purity of dedicated love, but always in fetching gowns, stunningly colourful even in black and white.

They are supported by a cast deep in veteran talent. In addition to Melvyn Douglas, Walter Huston and Frank Morgan, Ethel Barrymore (as Pauline's wealthy grandmother) and Agnes Moorehead (as a gnarly pawn shop owner) make telling contributions.

The Great Sinner has no concept of half measures in action or affection, but ironically lands as a middling effort, breaking even for the night.

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