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London, in the 1870's. Infamous financier, Augustus Melmotte, arrives in town. As he sets up home in a grand new house at Grosvenor Square, rumors of his financial wizardry and his eligible heiress daughter, Marie, spread like wild fire. Concerns that Melmotte may also be an accomplished swindler are soon forgotten as London's impoverished establishment greedily anticipates a change in fortunes. Having gambled away his family's money, profligate young Baronet, Sir Felix Carbury, decides that he'll have a try for the Melmotte daughter. Lady Carbury, delighted by her son's resourcefulness, turns her attention to her daughter, Hetta. Lady Carbury has always planned that Hetta should marry her cousin, Roger Carbury, squire of the modest family estate in Suffolk. But Hetta falls passionately in love with Roger's protégé, Paul Montague, a handsome, well-traveled engineer who has come into her life like a breath of fresh air. Paul excitedly tells Roger about his love for Hetta. Roger is devastated but clings to the hope of winning Hetta for himself, despite her gentle insistence that she will never marry him. And the two old friends find themselves rivals.
Paul and his livewire American business partner, Hamilton K. Fisker, approach Melmotte with an exciting new project. They plan to build a railway stretching from Salt Lake City to Vera Cruz. Melmotte agrees to become Chairman of the Railway Company in London, and in so doing attracts hungry investors.
Marie is dazzled by Felix's lovemaking and encourages him to ask her father for her hand. But Melmotte has now launched himself in to high society and has his sights set on a better match for his daughter than a penniless Baronet. Felix takes time off to pursue an attractive country girl, Ruby Ruggles. Meanwhile, out of the blue, a formidable and mysterious American beauty, Mrs. Hurtle, arrives in London looking for Paul. Mrs. Hurtle has returned to London to keep Paul to the promise of marriage that he made to her two years ago in San Francisco. Paul tries to explain that his feelings have changed, but the beguiling and sexually manipulative Mrs. Hurtle warns him that it is up to her to release him from the engagement. The shares of the Railway Company are flourishing, and Melmotte starts to borrow money against them to finance new projects. At the meeting of the board of directors for the Railway Company, Paul asks when work will start in Mexico but is brushed off by Melmotte and his cronies. Melmotte's adviser, Croll, warns that Paul could be dangerous but is ignored. Back in the country, Ruby Ruggles rejects her beau, John Crumb, and incurs the wrath of her grandfather. Bruised and upset, Ruby heads for London in pursuit of Felix. She takes refuge with her aunt, Mrs. Pipkin, at whose house Mrs. Hurtle also happens to be lodging.
Georgiana Longestaffe, snobbish but desperate to find a husband, arrives in London as a reluctant guest of the Melmottes. Melmotte announces that Marie is to marry another of her suitors, Lord Nidderdale. Marie tells Felix that she has her own money and makes it clear that she will defy her father. Aided by her maid Didon, she begins to plot her elopement with Felix. Paul is concerned that Melmotte refuses to discuss the practicalities of building the railway, and decides to go to Mexico under his own steam to check that the project is under way. Paul uses his imminent departure as an excuse to visit Hetta. He is interrupted by Roger and her mother before he can say all that he wants to, but leaves Hetta in no doubt as to his feelings. As Felix and Ruby continue their affair, Marie forces him into agreeing to their elopement. Paul is coerced into taking Mrs. Hurtle to the coast for the weekend where, disastrously, they bump into Roger.
Before Paul leaves for Mexico, Mrs. Hurtle promises that she will release him from their engagement if he returns home with his heart still set on Hetta. Marie arrives in Liverpool for her passage to the United States only to be arrested. Meanwhile, back in London, Felix has drunk himself into a stupor and lost his money for the trip at cards. He accuses a colleague of cheating and is thrown out of the club. Marie is returned home in disgrace and Melmotte threatens to sue Felix. Lady Carbury's suitor, the newspaper editor Mr. Broune, steps in and averts disaster. Meanwhile for the first time, Melmotte is laying down roots. He has bought a property in the country although the Longestaffe family that sold him the house, have yet to see a penny. Melmotte throws a lavish banquet for the state visit of the Chinese Emperor and any doubts about his financial standing are quieted. Georgiana is courted by Melmotte's dignified and kindly banker, Mr. Brehgert. Felix is stopped from seeing Ruby by Mrs. Pipkin and Mrs. Hurtle, who refuse to allow the 'courtship' to continue until he makes his intentions clear. Marie has not heard from Felix since the elopement and persuades Hetta to investigate on her behalf. Felix makes it clear however that he only ever cared for Marie's money.
As Paul struggles in Mexico without the funding he needs, Fisker arrives. Fisker reveals that Melmotte is less concerned with building a railway than with raising capital from the shares. Hetta gently breaks the news of Felix's indifference to Marie who is consumed with rage and grief. Paul returns to London, determined to expose Melmotte. But his first visit is to Hetta. He proposes to her despite the fact that he may soon be broke and she accepts. Paul goes to break the news to Mrs. Hurtle. Her response is chilling. When Felix hears about his sister's engagement, he loses no time in telling her about Paul's other fiancée, Mrs. Hurtle. Meanwhile, Melmotte is elected as MP for Westminster. Taking his place in the House of Commons, he is immediately confused by the complex etiquette. Hetta tells a shocked Paul that their relationship is at an end. Ruby sneaks out to meet Felix. She tries to end their relationship when she realizes that he has no intention of marrying her, and Felix turns nasty. John Crumb comes to Ruby's aid just in time and wins her heart in the process. A newspaper publishes Paul's claims about Melmotte and the railway, shaking everyone's confidence. Torn by her feelings for Paul, Hetta visits Mrs. Hurtle to find out whether Felix's allegations about a continuing relationship are true.
Mrs. Hurtle coolly confirms that her relationship with Paul is not over, and Hetta decides she can never see him again. Georgiana foolishly insults Mr. Brehgert and loses her chance of marriage. Melmotte is besieged by creditors. As his shares plummet, the bank becomes concerned about the security on its loan. Melmotte needs to get his hands on his emergency fund, held in Marie's name, but she refuses to sign the money over to him. Croll intervenes to prevent Melmotte from beating Marie, and refuses to witness a forgery of Marie's signature. Melmotte attempts a forgery of both Marie and Croll's signatures but the bank rejects the paperwork and calls in the loan. Knowing that his dreams of becoming an English gentleman are over, Melmotte the Great Financier commits suicide. Felix returns to the gambling tables to beat his cheating colleague at his own game. But his triumph is short lived when Mr. Broune, now his mother's fiancé, packs him off to Europe. Mrs. Hurtle visits Hetta before returning to the United States. She has realized that despite every effort she will never be able to come between Paul and Hetta. They are free to marry and travel the world together. As Marie, her money intact, contemplates her future as a rich young woman, Fisker arrives to sort out Melmotte's estate and breezily tells Paul that the enthusiasm for the shares in America means that the railway will now be built.
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