THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM, 1955
Starring: Frank Sinatra, Eleanor Parker, Kim Novak, Darren McGavin, Robert Strauss
Frankie Machine arrives back on Chicago’s South Side after a 6 month prison term. Now clean from an earlier heroin addiction, he is determined to make a fresh start to his life by pursuing a new career as a jazz drummer. However, Frankie is a local legend as a dealer in high stakes poker games. He is the professional gambler’s “man with the golden arm” and nobody on the South Side wants him to abandon his lucrative, if self-destructive, work; not his former pusher; not the gamblers who only want to play him; or his wife, Zosich, now confined to a wheelchair after surviving a car accident caused by a stoned Frankie. Frankie continually fails in his bid to become a musician. Instead, he drifts back to his old job as a dealer. All the while, he pursues his beautiful neighbor, Molly, the only person he knows who supports him in his attempt to start over. Nonetheless, as his disappointments mount, Frankie is drawn back to heroin.
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When this film was released in the mid-’50s it was the first treatment of drug addiction in a Hollywood movie. The old production code forbade even the direct mention of hard drugs, much less the depiction of the use of them on screen. “The Man With The Golden Arm” was originally denied a certificate of approval by the MPAA. When the film proved a commercial success, the production code was changed the following year to allow such formerly forbidden topics as drug use and prostitution to be addressed in films made by the major studios. It’s interesting to note that alcohol addiction was considered allowable under the old code, as 10 years earlier Billy Wilder had made “The Lost Weekend”, starring Ray Milland. That film shows a journey through the ravages of addiction in many ways similar to the one depicted in “The Man With The Golden Arm”. Both films were big hits with audiences despite studio fears, in each case, that they were too dark. The success of these two films demonstrated that post-war audiences were much more open to serious movies on difficult subjects than they were given credit for by Hollywood.
Based on Nelson Algren’s 1949 novel of the same name, the film softened some of the edges of its source material. In the book, Frankie Machine commits a murder and ends by killing himself. Otto Preminger, and his screenwriters, Walter Newman and Lewis Meltzer, understood that in adapting this controversial book, the subject of heroin addiction was already dark enough for audiences of the time. Thus, in the spirit of classic Hollywood, Frankie (Frank Sinatra), after being tortured, and almost overcome, by his demons, is given a second chance at life by the end of the film.
Preminger’s instincts for what would work when dramatizing risky material were strong, but not infallible. He brought together an excellent cast. Elmer Bernstein created a brilliant, original jazz score, nothing the like of which had been heard in a movie at the time. The score’s harsh, dissonant quality perfectly captures the fractured consciousness of the central character. Saul Bass’ title sequence was also a breakthrough at the time. Like Bernstein’s score, it is jarring, abstract and very modern, in a mid-20th century way.
With these strong elements assembled, it is puzzling why Preminger did not pay more attention to the production design or cinematography of this important film. The film was shot entirely on studio sets, which was not, in and of it self, a bad thing. Many of the great film noirs, for example, are studio bound and look it. But, “The Man With The Golden Arm” has the undistinguished, generic quality of early ‘50s television episodes. Similarly, the black and white cinematography is disappointing. Sam Leavitt’s work in this regard is again reminiscent of old TV shows. Perhaps, Preminger felt the character driven drama was the most important element and didn’t want any other considerations interfering with it.
Preminger’s concern for the actors and the development of their characters is evident in his devotion to the long take. Throughout the film, the actors are allowed to play out their scenes with a minimal amount of editing coming between them and the audience. The film stops just short of feeling like a filmed play, but the technique is satisfying as it allows the actors to thoroughly explore their characters. This is particularly true of Sinatra as Frankie. The long, mainly unedited takes, allow him to build his character slowly, beginning with the opening scenes where he is a weak, vulnerable man subject to the manipulations of those around him. In these early scenes, Sinatra succeeds in subordinating his own powerful persona, and is surprisingly convincing as a man beaten down and disappointed with life. He then transitions, showing how difficult and aggressive Frankie can be as he once again begins to use. Finally, he descends to utter desperation, a kind of hell and it is in this last act of the film, that Sinatra really impresses. The lengthy cold turkey scene near the end of the film is thought to have earned Sinatra his Academy Award nomination for Best Actor and he is excellent in it. However, as impressive, if not more so, in a quieter, more subtle way, is the extended all night poker sequence that precedes his final attempt to quit heroin. It is in this scene, that the writing, acting and directing all come together to really give the audience of sense of how trapped Frankie Machine is. He wants desperately to quit the game, and heroin, so he can make it to an important audition. However, through various means - bullying, manipulation, the promise of drugs - he is kept awake and working by the men who, puppet-like, pull his strings. There is an exhaustion and sadness to Sinatra’s performance here that is as memorable, if not more so, than the showier cold turkey sequence to come.
Sinatra is joined by Eleanor Parker as his emotionally grasping, and ultimately dangerous wife, Zosich. Parker, like Sinatra, benefits from Preminger’s directorial style and slowly unfolds before us a deceptively frail, docile woman who we learn ultimately will stop at nothing to take care of herself. Kim Novak, in an early role, is more relaxed and expressive than in many of her later performances.
“The Man With The Golden Arm” is a very well acted study of a subject that had never been treated before on the screen. As such, the film marks an important dramatic breakthrough and is marred only by its unimaginative production design and photography, as well as by a contrived ending demanded by the conventions of Hollywood filmmaking at the time. It is still worth seeking out for its intelligent take on the subject, terrific score, and a powerful central performance by Frank Sinatra.