I first expressed a certain curiosity for Otto Preminger’s The Man With the Golden Arm when I saw that Saul Bass tribute made by google doodle. I then heard it was one of Frank Sinatra’s best performances (Oscar-nominated and all that). It was actually on my to-watch list for quite a long time. When Debbie Vega from Moon in Gemini announced her Greatest Film I’ve Never Seen Blogathon, I jumped on the opportunity to finally see this film. Actually, looking at the roster, I’m pretty impatient to read some of the entries as it includes some favourites and I’m curious to see how other people experience their first viewings of these films!
There are a bunch of great films I still have to see, but one thing at the time. And I don’t regret my choice at all. I mean, it would have been disappointed to write “well, I don’t think The Man With the Golden Arm is that great.”
The 1955’s film was based on the novel by Nelson Algren and marked cinema history for being the first film to use drug addiction and its side effects as a central subject. Despite the controversy this film created, it’s no way a film promoting the use of drugs, more the opposite.
The story revolves around Frankie Machine (Frank Sinatra). He’s back in Chicago after a six-month stay at Lexington Federal Medical Center, now cured of his drug addiction. He returns to his invalid wife, Zosh (Eleanor Parker) who his stuck in a wheelchair after a car accident that Frankie is held responsible for. He also sees his old acquaintances, his friend Sparrow (Arnold Stang) and Molly (Kim Novak), an old loving partner. Frankie’s, now clean from his drug habit and has for ambition to be part of a big band as he learned to play the drum while being in Lexington. Unfortunately, he hasn’t managed to run away from his nasty acquaintances, including drug dealer Louie (Darren McGavin). His possessive wife doesn’t help either and Frankie won’t take long to take back his bad habit and ruin his opportunity to be part of a big band. However, Molly is here to help him.
Frank Sinatra was not the first actor who was approached for the role. Initially, the screen rights were obtained in 1949 for John Garfield to star in the film, but this never happened because one, Joseph Breen, Production Code authority wouldn’t give the seal of approval to the film, and two, John Garfield prematurely died in 1952 before any production of the film could ever start. Otto Preminger then got the rights for the film.
The script was given to both Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra. And Sinatra finally got what he wanted. I think Hollywood had a malignant pleasure to create competition between these twos, which I find totally absurd since they are yes, both great actors, but also very different. Remember, Frank Sinatra played the role of Nathan Detroit in Guys & Dolls although he would have preferred to play Sky Masterson (the role went to Brando). The method actor also won the role of Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, which was another part Frank Sinatra was interested in. But, this time, the crooner-actor didn’t waste any time and managed to get the role before Marlon Brando. As much as I love Marlon Brando, I’m glad Frank Sinatra got it. I think Brando could have had a tendency to somehow overplay it. And Sinatra gave his best and the result was a jaw-dropping performance.
He prepared his role looking at two aspects of his character: the drug addiction and the drum playing. Drummer Shelly Mann taught him the instrument while the comportment of drug addicts was studied at various drug rehabilitation clinics. The studies of a realistic subject resulted in something convincing, both for the realism and for the feeling of torture he transmits to the spectator.
Here, Frank Sinatra is shown to us as he has never been before. Meticulous, devoted but, most of all, vulnerable. And that’s what I like about most of the actor’s performances: the vulnerability that emanates from their interpretations. What particularly struck me about this film is the close up of Frank in jail (he’s been brought there with no reasons when he had just come out of the rehabilitation center). His tortured face expresses a clear feeling of despair that reaches us with an impressive strength. We can also think of this scene where he goes cold turkey. Not only it must have been a physically improving scene (throwing chairs all over the room, rolling on the floor, crying, etc), but also mentally exhausting. Even if you’re only “acting”, you still have to put yourself in a certain mood to convince, not only the audience that what you do is well-made, but also yourself. Frank Sinatra doesn’t try to look handsome and glamorous here. He just invests himself in the performance and we’re in awe.
And Kim Novak! I’m normally not really a fan of her, but I must say I really liked her in The Man With the Golden Arm. The part she played was one with a lot of opportunities, that could have been interpreted in many different ways and Kim chose the right one. She’s convincing, she doesn’t overplay and she and Frank have a strong and convincing chemistry. For once also, the hero in the film is a woman, not a man. And that’s Molly (Kim Novak). She helps Frankie Machine to get better and is always here for him (even when she suddenly leaves by car). She won’t let the drug industry destroy him completely. So far, this is surely my favourite performance of her. It allows me to see her on another angle. And, even if she was a beautiful woman, she doesn’t force herself to just present physical beauty for the sake of the image. She also shows a beautiful balance in her acting and adds a lot of intelligence to her character. Well done, Kim!
I hadn’t seen many films with Eleanor Parker before (only The Sound of Music and her cameo in It’s A Great Feeling). She’s a surprising actress! Surely versatile. I mean, we agree that her character here is pretty different from the one in The Sound of Music. As a matter of fact, at the beginning of the film, I was not a hundred percent sure it was her. Yes, I knew she was in the film, but I had to check to make sure it really was THAT character. Of course, she was 10 years younger than in The Sound of Music and her look was very different. I’d like to see more of her films.
I won’t talk about each actor because there are other things to explore in the film, but one that really intrigued me was Darren McGavin who plays Louie, the drug dealer. Ok, I don’t know how to explain, but there’s something very seducing about him. He has a lot of charisma. That works for his character because Louie’s objective is obviously to “attract” Frankie in the world of drugs and by selling him some, he makes some money. So, that’s only to his advantage. He’s a complex and very interesting character.
The Man With the Golden Arm is not only remembered for Frank Sinatra’s masterful performance and not only for his daring subject. Two more keys open the door on this iconic film: Saul Bass’s title sequence and Elmer Bernstein’s score.
We rarely discuss title sequences when writing about a movie for the simple reason that there isn’t always something interesting to see. But with Saul Bass, it’s different. The opening credits with the crooked arm became the visual symbol of the film. What does it represent? Maybe the arm tortured by the drug. Because yes, the drug used in the film is never named, but visual clues let us guess that it’s very probably heroin. Also, I was reading by curiosity what were the effects of this drug, and it referred pretty much to the ones Frankie Machine undergoes. The website The Art of the Title, author Pat Kirkham quotes Saul Bass saying “The intent of this opening was to create a mood spare, gaunt, with a driving intensity… [that conveyed] the distortion and jaggedness, the disconnectedness and disjointedness of the addict’s life the subject of the film.” It’s done in a minimalist but effective way. Saul Bass knew perfectly that “too much is not enough”.
And the opening credits also introduces Elmer Bernstein’s jazz compositions. As a matter of fact, it was one of the first films to use jazz music in such a strong way. Later, Bernstein did a similar kind of work with Sweet Smell of Success. It really reflects the mood of the story, but also Chicago’s atmosphere, where the film takes place, and Frankie Machine’s internal demons. I like how the music becomes very intense when something bad is about to happen (ie. Frank going at Louie’s to have a “fix”). It’s a score that gives us chills and that captivates us at the same time. Surely, some of the scenes wouldn’t be the same without it. Elmer Bernstein received an Oscar nomination for his excellent score.
On its release, The Man With the Golden Arm surely provoked controversy due to his subject, drug addiction, but despite that, it received a good commercial and critical subject. As a matter of fact, I guess the board of censorship was shocked to see someone using drugs on screen (oulala) in the same way they would have been shocked to see sex or violence, but they probably didn’t understand the film very well Were they afraid people might want to do drug if they’ll watch it? If yes, well, they were very stupid. As I’ve said before, the film doesn’t glorify drugs at all. On the contrary, it strongly convinces you that it’s something bad for your physical and mental health. So, it could almost be used as prevention. And the problem for Frankie Machine isn’t only the effects the drug has on him, but also the whole criminal world in which he’s trapped.
If you’ve never seen The Man With the Golden Arm before (like it was the case for me before participating in Debbie’s blogathon), I strongly encourage you to. Not only for the reasons I’ve mentioned previously, but also because it’s something different. There’s really a feeling of “never felt before” when you watch this film. It’s hard to explain, so you have to see it to believe it!
I’m happy I chose this film for the blogathon and I can now cross it from my long list of “great movies I must see”.
But I’m not the only one who wrote about some iconic film. You can read much more here:
Many thanks to Debbie for hosting this fun blogathon!