Pros: Very strong cast; photography; music; set design

Cons: WTF are the motivations of the Zosch character?

Card dealer and former heroin addict Frankie Machine has just been released from prison. In the joint, Frankie learned to play the drums and is looking to get a gig playing with a famous bandleader now that he’s a free man. Almost instantly though, it seems like things are very much against him: his extremely clingy and whiny wife Sophia (or “Zosch” as she is known) is confined to a wheelchair (or is she?) and wants things to remain as they were prior to Frankie’s prison sentence. Although lifelong companion Sparrow (a dim little fellow who nonetheless looks up to Frankie like a boss) aims to help him walk the straight and narrow, Frankie is soon accosted by his old boss, a card shark named Schwiefka, and drug dealer Louis. Seems that these two lowlifes want to make a big score by running an illegal card game using Frankie as the dealer – but becoming involved with these two will most likely put a stop to Frankie’s potential music career. As Frankie falls back into his old ways (and picks right up where he left off on the horse), an ex-girlfriend named Molly tries to help him clean up his act – but is it too late?

Controversial when released in 1955 due to its presentation of the then-taboo topic of drug abuse, The Man With the Golden Arm probably has to be considered one of the most important films of its day. Director Otto Preminger, faced with increasing pressure from the film censorship board, chose to release the picture without Motion Picture Association of America certification, thus proving that such a film could still play theaters and make money. In the end, the attention paid to this film and its topic ensured that more “adult-oriented” subject matter would be permitted in future films.

To be honest, I don’t think it was really the drug content in this picture that caused a stir, but rather the presentation of the addict that the censorship boards had a problem with. Based on a novel by Nelson Algren and written by Walter Newman, Lewis Meltzer and Ben Hecht, this film boasts a much more literate and revealing portrayal of drug abuse than had ever been seen in films: it’s a far cry from hysterical “scare films” of the 1930s like Reefer Madness or Narcotic. Main character Frankie seems like a normal fellow who simply went down the wrong path at some point in his life: he truly tries to do the right thing early on in the film, but the proverbial deck seems to be stacked against him. The script (and director Preminger’s presentation of it) doesn’t condemn Frankie for his actions; instead, it tries to make him a character the viewer can relate to.

The Man With the Golden Arm seems to support the argument that drug addiction is more a health issue than a criminal offense since, even though he’s associated with plenty of riffraff, Frankie doesn’t come across as an altogether bad guy. As an audience, we certainly get an insight into his character’s mindset, and really feel for the guy as everything around him really starts to hit rock bottom. Late in the film, there’s a really intense, harrowing moment when Frankie, once again in trouble with the police for something that doesn’t really have anything to do with him, is forced to go cold turkey. This scene (while nothing compared to the horrific withdraw scene in 1996’s Trainspotting, perhaps [along with a film like 1989’s Drugstore Cowboy] one of the definitive cinematic representations of heroin abuse) would have been fairly eye-opening in 1955, and definitely shows the conflict going on inside Frankie. Since we get an almost compassionate portrayal of the main addict character, the by far more despicable characters in the story are the drug dealer, who engages in psychological warfare with Frankie on more than one occasion in an attempt to get him back on the junk, and Frankie’s wife Zosch. While Zosch appears to be nearly helpless since she’s confined to a wheelchair, the audience knows early on that things aren’t quite what they seem with her. This makes her constant badgering of Frankie and insistence that things remain as they were prior to his prison stretch all the more infuriating: does she even want Frankie to do well for himself?

Acting in this film is universally strong, with Frank Sinatra in the lead role, once again making me wish he would have kept up with acting rather than his nightclub career. In many ways, this was kind of an unflattering role for Sinatra: he really has to look down and out at several points in the story, but the fact that a well-known, good-looking guy like Sinatra plays the drug addict helps the film in the long run by proving that anyone could be in the same boat as this character. Though Sinatra occasionally resorts to rather stereotypical “look at me, I’m a dope addict” types of mannerisms in his performance (which may especially be true during the cold turkey withdraw scene), I generally thought he did a really nice job, emphasizing the inner torment that ultimately leads Frankie right back down the path to drug abuse and small-time crime – he certainly deserved the Oscar nomination for best actor.

The supporting cast here is also fabulous, with Darren McGavin perhaps making the strongest impression as Louis, the dope peddler. Playing a character that’s quite a departure from his well-known roles on Bewitched or as the dad in A Christmas Story, McGavin here comes across as the epitome of “skeezy,” and the way he expertly manipulates Frankie into desiring a “fix” is downright nefarious. Arnold Stang is also pretty memorable as Sparrow, the sidekick of sorts who’s quite lovable despite the fact that he’s definitely not all there. Eleanor Parker’s performance as Zosch is pretty remarkable, capable of making me absolutely despise the woman for her conniving behavior in near record time. Much of the film just has her bitching up a storm at her husband, but late in the going, Parker gets a chance to show off her chops when her little scheme (“You can WALK!!”) is found out by some of the other characters. Finally, we have the lovely Kim Novak as the world-weary Molly, the ex-flame who still harbors deep feelings for Frankie and sincerely wants to help him, even though she knows that nothing good will come from it. The rapport between Novak and Sinatra may be the one element that works to sort of anchors the story; you can just tell these two characters have been on some journeys together previously.

It’s very easy to notice the film noir influence over the look of The Man With the Golden Arm, even if this effort from genre veteran Preminger doesn’t quite fit the bill as such. Shot almost entirely on obviously confined sets, the film is almost claustrophobic in its feel since cinematographer Sam Leavitt’s camera is typically positioned directly in front of the actors. This approach works exceedingly well in a picture dealing in a no-frills manner with this type of subject matter. Additionally, the whole thing (with its exaggerated, shabby set design) feels artificial and almost hyper-realistic, as if it takes place in a sort of filthy, grimy nightmare world that drug addict Frankie has imagined based on his perspectives of his own life and those around him. Many scenes in this picture feel very theatrical in their presentation – there are some very long takes utilized in the finished film, and the camera angles often take up a vantage point emphasizing the relationship between characters. Heightening this film’s effects is an amazingly smoky music score from Elmer Bernstein. While the laid back jazz music captures the mindset of the down-and-out characters nicely, what’s really cool about the soundtrack is that it mimics the appetite that Frankie has for heroin. When he’s really fiending for a hit, the music screeches and howls in an erratic manner, giving the audience a further insight into the mentality of the main character. I’d be remiss without at least mentioning the wonderful graphic design and title sequence put together by the one and only Saul Bass, but all in all, most every aspect of this film is pretty excellent.

There are a few things that I could nitpick about this film: for one, I sometimes found myself wishing that this film had more location filming and didn’t take place entirely on tight sets. While the art department’s work constructing these locations was fantastic, I think the picture would have benefited from a few more “open” shots to change up the atmosphere a bit – as it stands, the film is overbearing at times and perhaps too artificial-looking and stylized for some viewers. Another thing I could say about the film is that I never really got the insight into the Zosch character that I would have liked: it’s pretty clear early on that this broad has problems, but I never quite got a handle on her motivations. Is she a psychopath? Is she taking out some serious frustration on her husband? In ways, I felt the handling of her character in the script was sort of one-dimensional; not being able to follow her mindset made some things in the story a bit difficult to buy since I simply couldn’t understand where her character was at.

These are both relatively minor issues though: in the bigger scheme of things, The Man With the Golden Arm earns its reputation as a classic of 1950s cinema. This drama takes the tricks that director Preminger had learned in his earlier film noirs and transfers them into a hard-hitting but insightful story about drug addiction. It’s a film like this that could (and perhaps did) go a long way in shifting public opinion – this film would make a great companion to William S. Burroughs’s 1953 short novel Junky that also deals heavily with the issue of drug abuse. Highly recommend to anyone looking for a good movie to watch.

Available in a variety of packages (including some cheapo DVD releases); obviously the best one would be the release from Warner Home Video. This features a nice-looking, widescreen print of the film, plus the theatrical trailer and a making-of featurette.

4/10 : Some bloodless violence and a murder; doesn’t shy away from the realities of heroin abuse.

2/10 : Nothing much that’s offensive, but this film does deal with heavy thematic material.

2/10 : A few scenes taking place in a strip joint, with scantily-clad women jostling about. Pretty tame, really.

4/10 : Though it’s a film that deals with drugs, it’s not a “drug film” as I might consider something made today.

“The monkey’s never dead, dealer…the monkey never dies. When you kick him off, he just hides in a corner waitin’ for his turn…”

Theatrical Trailer:

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