During the 1860s in Wiesbaden, Pauline Ostrovsky, a reformed addict, receives a manuscript from the dying writer Fedya (diminutive of Fyodor), in which he looks back at their first meeting: While traveling from Paris to Moscow, Fedya meets Pauline and secretly feels attracted to her. Noticing she is disembarking at Wiesbaden, Fedya decides to leave the train as well and follows her to a casino. There, he finds out Pauline is, like her father General Ostrovsky, a gambling addict. Upon seeing how undisturbed the Ostrovskys are to find out the General's wealthy mother is dying, he becomes interested in the effects of gambling. He decides to stay in Wiesbaden to do a character study of gambling addicts.
One of them is Aristide Pitard, an old thief who steals Fedya's money. Taking pity on the man, Fedya offers Aristide money to leave the city. Instead, Aristide uses the money to gamble and he eventually shoots himself in desperation. Before dying, he gives Fedya a pawn ticket and asks him to redeem it and return the article to its owner. However, he dies before divulging the name of this person. When Fedya goes to the pawnshop he discovers that the pledged item is a religious medal, and later finds out that it belongs to Pauline. Meanwhile, he has fallen deeply in love with her, despite her father's discouragement of a romantic involvement with her.
After returning the medal, Fedya finds out Pauline is pledged to an arranged marriage with Armand de Glasse, the wealthy but ruthless manager of the casino. Aware that Pauline is not engaged to Armand out of love, but as a payment for her father's big debts to the casino, Fedya decides to start gambling himself to earn enough money to pay off the General's debts. He initially earns a lot of money at roulette and becomes a gambling addict himself. However, after a period of fame for his winning streak, his luck runs out and he loses all of his money at the casino.
Fedya eventually is forced to borrow money from Armand to continue his gambling. After this, he even goes as far as pawning his possessions. When he is completely broke, Fedya has a vision in which Aristide hands him a gun to shoot himself. Delirious, he grabs Pauline's medal and attempts to sell it to pawnbroker Emma Getzel. She refuses to buy it however, after which he almost kills her before losing consciousness. In the end, Fedya completes his manuscript. After, he turns to Pauline, who forgives him for his behavior.Gregory Peck as Fedya (diminutive of Fyodor)
Ava Gardner as Pauline Ostrovsky
Melvyn Douglas as Armand de Glasse
Walter Huston as General Ostrovsky
Ethel Barrymore as Grandmother Ostrovsky
Frank Morgan as Aristide Pitard
Agnes Moorehead as Emma Getzel
The working title for the film was The Gamblers. Warner Bros. planned on making a screen adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel in 1940, directed by William Dieterle and starring Albert Basserman. Eventually, MGM bought the rights to the short novel, and for its adaptation, the screenwriters also used elements of Dostoyevsky's life and his other novel Crime and Punishment.
In April 1948, Gregory Peck was cast in the lead role. At the time it was announced, it was revealed Deborah Kerr was scheduled to star opposite him. However, in late May 1948, Lana Turner was cast as Peck's leading lady, with production set to start in September the same year. However, a week later, in June, it was revealed that Ava Gardner was cast in the female lead. Turner withdrew from the film due to an extended honeymoon in Europe, which prevented her from being in Hollywood in time for the commencement of filming. The film was Peck and Gardner's first of three collaborations.
The role played by Melvyn Douglas was initially offered to Kirk Douglas.
In late June 1948, Robert Siodmak signed on for the direction. Initially, Siodmak had been unavailable to direct the film due to commitments to an ultimately unrealized project starring Joan Fontaine, but Fontaine's withdrawal due to pregnancy allowed Siodmak to direct The Great Sinner. The film went into production as a 'prestige film' and Peck later recalled that Siodmak was as a "nervous wreck" as a result of the responsibility he felt. Walter Huston did not sign on for the film until production had already started in September 1948.
Despite the first-class production values, The Great Sinner flopped at the box office. According to MGM records the film earned $1,179,000 in the US and Canada and $862,000 overseas resulting in a loss of $821,000.
In a New York Herald Tribune review, the film was called "pompous and dull entertainment." Magazine Time 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."
Screenwriter Christopher Isherwood, who adapted the novel, admitted to the failure, saying: "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."