Adapted from Somerset Maugham's novel, Larry renounces ambition and marriage to search for self-knowledge and inner peace while his ex-fiancée Isabel marries a wealthy man, who loses it in the crash. Larry returns to his friends and tries to help an alcoholic widow.
In 1919 Somerset Maugham (Herbert Marshall) attends a party in Chicago given by Elliott Templeton (Clifton Webb). He meets Larry Darrell (Tyrone Power), who declines a job with wealthy Gray Maturin (John Payne). Larry tells his fiancée Isabel Bradley (Gene Tierney) that he wants to loaf, but she urges him to work. Larry says a man died saving his life.
Larry goes to Paris and ignores the wishes of Elliott, whose niece Isabel arrives and is greeted by Larry. He shows her his little apartment and asks her to marry, but she does not want to live on $3,000 a year. Larry wants to learn, and Isabel gives him back the ring. On her last night she goes out with Larry. He kisses her passionately, but she tells him to go. Elliott chides her for not springing her trap to marry him.
Isabel marries Gray in America. Larry works in a coal mine, and a defrocked priest (Fritz Kortner) suggests that he go to India to see a teacher. Larry does so and describes his quest. The holy man (Cecil Humphreys) speaks of finding God within and says Larry can stay there. In a hospital Gray tells Sophie (Anne Baxter) that her husband and child are dead. Larry goes on a pilgrimage to a mountain retreat. His teacher visits him, and Larry says he experienced freedom. The holy man sends him back to the world.
In Paris, Elliott tells Maugham that Gray lost all in the stock market crash, but Elliott sold short in time. Maugham visits Gray and Isabel. Larry arrives and meets her two children. Gray has a headache, and Larry helps him by using suggestion. Maugham takes them out to dinner, and Isabel tells Maugham that she still loves Larry. In a lower-class place they find Sophie drunk, and Gray scuffles with her boyfriend. Larry recalls his childhood with Sophie.
Isabel calls Larry, and she is shocked to learn he is marrying Sophie. Jealous Isabel tells Maugham and asks him to advise Larry. She gets angry at Maugham, and he praises her beauty. Maugham advises her to be nice to Sophie. At a party Elliott allows himself to drink and tempts Sophie, who has stopped drinking. Isabel invites Sophie and says she wants Larry to be happy. Sophie says she struggles, and Larry has saved her. Sophie misses her dead child. Isabel leaves her alone, and Sophie drinks. Larry looks for Sophie and finds her drunk with men, and he gets into a fight with them.
Maugham says they did not see Sophie for a year. A policeman tells Maugham that Sophie was murdered. Larry asks to see her place. Maugham and Larry visit dying Elliott, who is sad he is missing a party. Larry gets an invitation for Elliott. A bishop gives Elliott his last rites. Elliott says that Isabel and Gray can use his money. Larry tells Isabel his plans for mechanical work and that he is still learning about himself. Isabel tells Larry that she still loves him and embraces him; but he asks her about Sophie, and Isabel admits she wanted to stop their marriage. Larry tells her that Sophie is dead and may be happy with her husband and daughter. Larry tells Isabel to take care of Gray and leaves. Isabel tells Maugham that she lost Larry. Maugham says that Larry found the greatest thing in the world-goodness.
This spiritual drama contrasts the cynical social life
with its concern for money and trivial pursuits to the quest to
learn about life and understand oneself. Although Larry takes
the path of knowledge, he is happy working as a laborer because
it keeps his mind free.