Based on an unfinished tale of Dostoevsky’s, this engaging drama stars Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner. Set in 1860s Germany, they are Fedja (a Russian writer) and Pauline Ostrovsky (also a Russian). She goes on a gambling binge in a resort town with her dad, General Ostrovsky (Walter Huston). Even Grandma Ostrovsky (Ethel Barrymore) proves to be a gambling fool.
After some beguiling looks from Pauline on the Paris-bound train, Fedja gets off at her stop, and can’t shake her spell. So much so, that he picks up her gambling habit, and inevitably loses everything. There’s more table action here than in most Vegas-themed movies.
In supporting roles, Agnes Morehead makes a scary pawnbroker, Emma Getzel. Frank Morgan’s not only just a jovial gambler, Pitard, but a scammer too. The bad guy here is Armand de Glasses (Melyvn Douglas).
Love at first sight is the name of the game on that train. Actually, we begin with a frame story–Fedja’s on his death bed, having visions. He narrates his story. Meaning we’re quickly at the roulette table in the casino, where Fedja and Pauline meet up again after their train compartment introduction. His advice: “Stop playing, and spend the evening with me.”
He’s to call at her hotel presently. The casino staff is mumbling about business. Fedja discovers that Pauline has hocked some jewelry to cover her debts. He meets her father, but she learns from a telegram that her grandmother is ill. Hanging out in the casino, Fedja drops his guard momentarily “I’m wondering why…why I’m here?”
Because he’s her good luck charm. As for himself “I can’t write a romance without being in love.” But then there’s gambling–here’s casino hand Pitard to welcome him to the tables. Fedja studies the gamblers with a psychologist’s eye.” I felt their fever in my own pulse.” Pitard soon cheats him.
But Fedja seems fascinated by the guy’s self-destructive instinct, and befriends him. Ironically, Pitard very quickly loses a fortune, and shoots himself. Before he dies, and by way of relieving his conscience, he gives Fedja a pawn ticket. It’s a religious medal “the stake [in gambling] is always the soul” he concludes.
With blithe indifference to Petard’s fate, Pauline wants Fedja to take her out gambling. She lets on that she’s considering marrying de Glasse, for his money. Despite their mutual attraction, Fejda’s merely a “mascot.” He finds her “irritatingly beautiful.” After a few more bits and pieces, she admits to Fedja that she’s falling in love with him.
Some great black humor ensues when she tells her dad. He feigns that it’s a catastrophe (as though she’s announced her engagement to an elephant). He mixes that in with the other ‘bad’ news–about her grandma; the old bat’s recovered! Next morning, the general greets Fedja; with card-playing as a metaphor, he basically tells the younger man to buzz off.
Perhaps the General was right about the bad news; Pauline’s really set to marry de Glasse. At Pitard’s funeral, Fedja spies her. She agrees to stay another night. Regarding de Glasse, he asks “why do you both behave as though this man owns you?” Well, thanks to dad’s desperate loan for granny, he does own the family financially. Guess what Fejda’s plan is? Win the money at the casino, of course.
And, naturally, he loses. If he keeps his bet, he loses; if he changes it, he loses. Then some luck. This reminds me so much of Ray Milland’s alcoholic character in The Lost Weekend. The tension is agonizing–winning means he has to keep winning, losing means–having to win. Nonetheless, it’s exciting. Which is after all the point of gambling.
He’s a guru to the other players “I was like the leader of a great army”. And “I was numb, blind, dizzy…it was almost sensuous.” He has an excellent opportunity to quit when the house momentarily runs out of cash. He offers then to pay off Ostrovsky’s debt. Ominously, de Glasse pretends not to have the markers to exchange for the cash.
I bet he thinks Fedja will lose the money before he ‘finds’ the notes. Meanwhile, he and Pauline plan marriage. All seems well. But Fedja, bitten so deep with the gambling bug, falls into his own psychological trap–an obsession with certain numbers. She wants to go to the opera, and begs him to come away from the tables.
Pauline leaves without him, but not before stumbling into de Glasse “a gambler was born tonight” he gloats. She waits up for Fedja. She’s had a nightmare of Pitard; Fedja has lost everything. Incredibly, She blames herself. She says they should leave immediately. But, no; instead she stakes him to a high-rolling card game.
There are so many levels of losing–what we have, what we don’t have, even what we could have. Now Fedja’s writing promissary notes to de Glasse. He’s “speculating on immortality”; that is, signing away anything he’ll ever earn. Now de Glasse stoops low enough to insult the General. Fedja’s going nuts, but, as everyone knows, he only has himself to blame.
Back to the cackling pawnbroker. And back to the tables. Well, Pauline has granny in tow. Fedja says his shame is so bad that he hates the sight of his lover/fiancee. The General tries to cheer him up. Very ironically, Fedja’s best bet, if he plays his cards right (!), is to marry Pauline; grandma’s dying–the girl will be an heiress.
The scenes with the General teaching his mom a card game seems innocent, yet we know he has a cunning plan. We begin to see that when the big shots sit down to play, Gramdma is slick with the cards. Now it’s de Glasse’s turn to twist in the wind. And, granny can’t lose, because, having instantly accumulated a fortune, she just up and dies. Macabre, yes, but well-played (!).
Fedja hallucinates that Pitard has come to talk; but then Pauline, in mourning, comes to comfort him. “Why should the likes of you go on?” crones the pawnbroker. He passes out right there in the shop. Staggering to the cathedral to pray, Fedja seems mesmerized.
Back to the frame story: he lies dying in his garret; Pauline has just finished the book that is the story we’ve just seen. His solace comes in knowing that the sale of the book will pay off Pauline’s debt (actually his debt to her). He asks her forgiveness, and professes his love. I can see that he feels a personal responsibility towards her; but isn’t she now wealthy? Nonetheless, he’s won her. We see vividly Dostoevsky’s theme of the redemptive power of love.
This is a case of the excellent performances making a simplistic plot come alive; the movie never feels preachy–perhaps because of the intensely personal nature of Fedja’s very human tragedy. Huston and Barrymore are so enjoyable, and keep Peck’s gloomy character from darkening the tone entirely. Gardner’s role seems very difficult: Pauline is by turns romantic and feckless. Like Fedja, she’s been pretending for too long. We see that gambling substitutes excitement for emotions.
Strangely, the neediest characters are those carefree souls, the General and his mom. Pitard is sort of a trickster type, wise, but a bit too clever. In fact, de Glasse’s evil is notable in this group of very enigmatic and complex characters.
Very well-put-togther movie with an excellent script. Highly recommended. 9/10.