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The Great Sinner

The Great Sinner(1949)


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teaser The Great Sinner (1949)

An opulently mounted period drama with a large and distinguished cast, The Great Sinner (1949) was one of MGM's "Silver Jubilee Productions," prestige films made during the studio's 25th anniversary year. Although the Russian novelist is not mentioned in the credits, the film is based on Fyodor Dostoevsky's story "The Gambler", and also borrowed episodes from Dostoevsky's own life (he lost several fortunes gambling), and from his novel Crime and Punishment, which he was writing at the same time he wrote "The Gambler." Gregory Peck plays Fedja, a writer who gets involved with the beautiful daughter (Ava Gardner) of a gambling addict (Walter Huston) who's in debt to a casino owner (Melvyn Douglas). In trying to help them, Fedja himself becomes obsessed with gambling.

Peck had made his film debut just five years earlier, and had already been nominated three times for an Oscar® (he would be nominated again for another film released in 1949, Twelve O'Clock High). One of Hollywood's fastest-rising young stars, Peck had refused to sign an exclusive contract with any one studio, much to the chagrin of MGM's Louis B. Mayer, who reportedly resorted to tears while begging Peck to sign on with MGM. Ava Gardner was also a rising star, after a long apprenticeship at MGM that began in 1941. The Killers (1946), which she made on loanout to Universal, got her noticed, and won her bigger roles at her home studio. The Great Sinner was the first of three films Peck and Gardner made together. They became great friends, and Peck later said that in spite of the fact that Gardner constantly disparaged her acting talent, he thought she was a very good actress who had the potential to be a great one.

The Great Sinner marked a reunion for Gardner and director Robert Siodmak, who had directed her in The Killers. Raised in Germany, Siodmak worked in German and French films before joining the flood of European migrs in Hollywood in 1940. Since The Great Sinner is set in the German spa resort city of Wiesbaden, Siodmak and fellow migr producer Gottfried Reinhardt (son of director Max Reinhardt) cast several European refugees in bit parts in the film. Peck remembered Siodmak as "an absolute nervous wreck" while working on The Great Sinner, overwhelmed with the responsibility of this "important" picture, and with a nurse constantly in attendance, giving him injections.

Siodmak was also working for a second time with Ethel Barrymore, whom he had directed in The Spiral Staircase (1946). The Great Sinner was Barrymore's first film under her new MGM contract. The grande dame of the American theater has a brief but impressive role in the film, as Walter Huston's mother, although she was only five years older than Huston. In spite of her pedigree, Barrymore had an earthy side, and enjoyed talking baseball and boxing with fellow fans Peck and Huston. Although Peck enjoyed those conversations, he was in awe of Huston and tried to draw him out about the craft of acting. Huston had little patience with such talk, and when Peck asked what advice he'd give to a young actor like himself, Huston replied, "Give 'em a good show and always travel first class."

As noted by the critics, The Great Sinner had first-class production values, but it was far from a successful film. Howard Barnes in the New York Herald Tribune called it "pompous and dull entertainment." Time Magazine had praise for supporting players Barrymore, Frank Morgan, and Agnes Moorehead, but added, "the rich, exuberant flow of dialogue, incident, and atmosphere characteristic of the Russian master has been choked to a pedestrian trickle. Dostoevsky's brilliant insights into the tortured motives and emotions of his lovers have paled into klieg-lighted stereotypes."

Novelist Christopher Isherwood, who worked on the screenplay, felt The Great Sinner was a missed opportunity. "It should have been much better than it was....but apart from a few good scenes, it was neither Dostoevsky's story, nor the story of Dostoevsky." The public, less literary than Isherwood, was completely uninterested, and stayed away. Seen today, however, The Great Sinner may not be faithful to Dostoevsky, but it is high-gloss MGM, with some excellent performances that make it well worth watching.

Director: Robert Siodmak
Producer: Gottfried Reinhardt
Screenplay: Ladislas Fodor, Christopher Isherwood, based on a story by Fodor, Rene Fulop-Miller
Cinematography: George Folsey
Editor: Harold F. Kress
Costume Design: Irene, Valles
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Hans Peters
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).
BW-110m. Closed captioning.

by Margarita Landazuri

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