This film is a good one to add to MOULIN ROUGE, LUST FOR LIFE (especially LUST FOR LIFE), THE NAKED MAJA, and THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY, as one of the few to tackle the great artist struggling to perfect his art (interestingly none of the films look at female artists, such as Rosa Bonheur or Mary Cassatt). In this case it is based on a novel by W. Somerset Maugham of the same title as the film.
The novel is different. To begin with, Maugham is clever enough to add little touches to the story that suggest it is a biography, not a novel. For example, he includes footnotes to non-existent literary studies on the works of Charles Strickland. I did not think that anyone did that sort of thing except the "Devil's Lexicographer" Ambrose Bierce. But the basics of the story are the same: Charles Strickland is a middle class stock broker, living in apparent Victorian respectability with his wife and children. Then, without warning, he deserts his wife and becomes totally bohemian, and when confronted by her and her family he repudiates their middle class morality and insists he wants to paint, and only paint - he is not interested in stocks and bonds.
Throughout the rest of the movie we see Strickland use and drop people like old laundry. He is a detestable cad (and is played by moviedom's most detestable/fascinating cad, George Sanders). But he is a painter of genius. And we watch as he moves from London to the continent to the South Seas for the stunning conclusion of the film.
Yes it is based in part on the career of Paul Gaughin (whom we last saw as Anthony Quinn in LUST FOR LIFE, shrugging off that nut he was living with in Arles who mutilated his ear lobe). But Maugham apparently also included some details with a less recalled artist who was a friend of his, Sir Augustus Johns. Johns too had a bad reputation of using friends, and was also determined to be free to paint (I suspect Joyce Carey may have had him in mind too for Gully Jimson in THE HORSE'S MOUTH).
The business of Strickland going to the South Seas is pure Gaughin, although not the final chapter of Strickland's last masterpiece. That is pure invention. I remember when I saw this film back in the 1970s the conclusion was one of the versions that showed Strickland's final work in color, and it is basically Gaughin's work or style. It is a breathtaking moment of artistic splendor (sorry if I am being a bit explosive, but you'd have to see it to understand). And given the circumstances of the artist when it was achieved, and the ironic conclusion to the story, the effect does knock the viewer for a loop.
Sanders gave his best to the role, never apologizing for his using people. Herbert Marshall is okay as Somerset Maugham, but his role is relatively simple and drab, as a type of narrator. Best in support is Steven Geray, that always reliable supporting player who all too infrequently was not used enough (see him in GILDA or THE MASK OF DEMETRIOS to see him when he had a well written role). Here he is a man who finds that Sanders stole his woman and his happiness from him, but when the woman dies after Sanders deserts her, Geray visits Sanders and says he forgives him (getting a sneer back from Sanders as his reward). As I said it is a very fine film.