Sunday Editor’s Pick: The Man With the Golden Arm (1955)

by on August 15, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sat Aug 20 and Sun Aug 21 at 7:00 at Museum of the Moving Image [Program & Tix]


“The Films of Frank Sinatra” series continues every weekend at MoMI through September 4th.
Up this week: The Man with the Golden Arm (1955). Sinatra stars as Frankie Machine, a smack-addicted Jazz drummer who commits to kicking his drug habit cold-turkey. Driven by an agonizing hunger for heroin and Elmer Bernstein’s propulsive score, Frankie literally bounces off the walls of his claustrophobically studio-bound Skid-Row universe. But there’s no respite for his suffering from director Otto Preminger, whose coldly gliding camerawork mechanically matches Machine’s every move, unflinchingly observing the aching depths of heroin withdrawl.
The combination of Code-breaking realism and highly stylized cinematography make for a visceral one-two punch. When Sinatra doubles over in pain, you’ll feel it in your gut.
Elmer Bernstein’s main theme for the film, “Clark Street” (just wait for 0:30):


Robert Horton for Film Comment (Jul/Aug 1998):

Sinatra’s acting in The Man With the Golden Arm is as fearless as his singing on Only the Lonely: the journey is a descent into the inferno, and Sinatra throws himself into the pit with scarcely a pause to consider the way back.


Actors tend to be overrated for showy roles, and underrated for just being. But Sinatra handles both ends beautifully in The Man With the Golden Arm; as the heroin addict Frankie Machine, he’s harrowing in the cold turkey scenes, vulnerable when trying to maintain in the real world. He and Kim Novak are very touching together; when he shares his (possibly pathetic) dream of becoming a jazz drummer, she helps him by recalling that, come to think of it, he was always good at whistling and beating on tables and his face shines with gratitude.


Sinatra and Novak don’t look like movie stars slumming it in a down-and-out game of dress-up, they look like two people who got left at the side of the road during the postwar boom years. Preminger brings his usual cool eye to depicting their dreams. The audience can decide for themselves whether the department store window diorama of suburban success, into which they gaze wistfully, is worthwhile or chilling.



Jonathan Rosenbaum on his blog:

But the most potent movie among the four [Preminger films I] considered here is undoubtedly The Man With the Golden Arm. It packs the biggest wallop, and it features what is surely the strongest of all Frank Sinatra’s dramatic performances, as well as the most affecting and glowing of Kim Novak’s. (Critic Raymond Durgnat once wrote that in this film “she blends a soft body with a butch suspicion and a childlike potentiality for devotion” — a description that clearly ties her to Seberg, MacNamara, and many other of her weird sisters in the Preminger canon.)


The film’s power has little to do with the Nelson Algren novel on which it’s based. Algren himself conceded that “it was better than most movies” and that he liked the music and Sinatra, but said he was sorry that “it was a Chicago story that had nothing to do with Chicago. Some of the people were dressed like old Vienna and some like old San Francisco. The book very specifically took place at a certain time, at a certain locale, and the movie took place nowhere.” Indeed, as Dave Kehr has aptly noted, the film’s style, including its black-and-white cinematography, is basically expressionist — filmed on sets rather than on location (a rare departure for Preminger) and peopled with grim characters who seem to have emerged from German expressionist nightmares rather than the streets of Chicago. The lighting and atmosphere are noirish, but the blighted human landscape is infernal — despite the relentless social determinism, which one would ordinarily associate with realism, in this tale of a beleaguered poker dealer, former junkie, and aspiring jazz drummer trying to go straight.


Preminger eschews the poetic realism of Algren, but his movie exudes a funky poetry all its own. Similarly, his depiction of heroin addiction may be flawed in certain details, but as a portrait of addiction pure and simple and the cruel power plays it sets in motion, it’s indelible, and as black as the darkest night. In the furtive anguish of this doom-ridden universe riddled with sordid streets and single-room flats, every interior is either a shelter or a prison, and every individual has the mysterious capacity to make it turn from one to the other at the drop of a hat. If Preminger knows what grants his characters that power, he isn’t saying.



Lang Thompson with some background, at TCM:

Nelson Algren’s novel The Man with the Golden Arm was such a controversial bestseller that somebody was bound to film it. John Garfield bought the rights but after his death, director/producer Otto Preminger acquired them. He had Algren come out to Hollywood for the adaptation but the novelist didn’t have much of a film sense so the script had to be rewritten, much to Algren’s irritation. Preminger sent the first half of the script to Frank Sinatra’s and Marlon Brando’s agents, getting an almost immediate response from Sinatra who was ready to sign the dotted line without seeing the rest. The contract was quickly done only to hear that they didn’t even give Brando time to see the script. (In an odd twist, years later Preminger was working on adapting The Godfather and thought Sinatra indispensable. Sinatra passed on the film and consequently so did Preminger leaving Brando to get the lead role.) Sinatra and Preminger got along wonderfully, Sinatra calling Preminger by his middle name Ludwig (which he deliberately mispronounced “Ludvig”) while Preminger jokingly pulled “Anatole” from thin air as his name for Sinatra.


Before working on this film, Sinatra had generally declined rehearsals, being famous for his insistence on filming quickly and getting it done. Preminger talked him into rehearsing and Sinatra soon discovered how much he actually enjoyed the process. Throughout filming Sinatra was considerate of Kim Novak’s nervousness as a new actor in such a high-profile film, even redoing scenes up to 35 times without complaining.



Chris Fujiwara in The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger:

The Man with the Golden Arm is largely a film of faces. Interiorized, psychological, the drama plays itself out among the mental images of beings and things, in repetitive, driving, elastic movements. The second shot in the film, a closeup from inside a bar of Frankie peering in through the window, already alerts us to the emphasis that the character’s subjective experience will receive. Drawn toward ever smaller spaces, the film seals itself off (as local gangster Schwiefka’s marathon poker game seals itself from the sunlight), locks itself in (as Frankie has himself locked in a room in the famous sequence of his attempt to kick his habit). Instead of (as in other Preminger films) exploring the contours and surfaces of the outer world, camera movement in The Man with the Golden Arm defines subjective mental states, creating a suffocating atmosphere, as in the repeated track-ins on huge closeups of Frankie’s eyes.


The fluidity of The Man with the Golden Arm, evident as early as the impressive opening crane shot, reflects the control over the visible universe that studio shooting affords (a domination that Preminger would renounce altogether, or as much as possible, in Anatomy of a Murder [1959] and subsequent films). The sets delineate Algren’s Skid Row as an isolated, self-contained world with no past and no future, ready for the bulldozers. The stylization of certain performances – notably Robert Strauss’s as Schwiefka and Arnold Stang’s as Frankie’s loyal sidekick – suits this artificial quality well. Although the drug-addiction theme, Sinatra’s naturalistic performance, and Elmer Bernstein’s brilliant, aggressive score ensured that, in its time, The Man with the Golden Arm was seen as advancing the cause of “realism” in Hollywood, Preminger’s setbound, stylized treatment of the story now seems an excursion into romanticism and a return to the moral universe of his 1940s films.



Leo Goldsmith describes the Saul Bass opening credit sequence for Not Coming to a Theater Near You (click to view slideshow):

A sanguine courier of controversy, Otto Preminger shirked the Production Code seal of approval for his 1955 account of a drug addict’s plight, The Man With the Golden Arm. And while many tales of drug addiction have followed in its wake, Preminger’s film is a clear watershed. Though obviously dated in some of its aspects, its scenes of Frank Sinatra, as the eponymous doper, falling on and off the wagon remain chilling and continue to inform contemporary films with the same subject matter.


Bass’ titles for the film feature spiny, cut-out projectiles, vaguely redolent of veins and syringes, that manages to be disconcerting despite the accompaniment of Elmer Bernstein’s rather brassy jazz score. The lines proliferate and jab at awkward, unsettling angles with respect to the titles. And the title of the film is seemingly penned in by four of these lines, suggesting the many forces hemming in Sinatra’s Frankie from all sides. Finally, privileging Preminger’s credit, the titular “golden arm” (which actually refers to Frankie’s prowess as a card dealer and not the location of his track-marks) appears as a bent and tortured appendage, reaching out for either redemption or a fix.

Jay Richardson for Future Movies:

For those more familiar with his performances in musicals, Sinatra’s transformation into Ol’ Yellow Eyes is little short of a revelation. As the ex-con and card-sharp Frankie Machine, struggling to stay clean and start again as a jazz drummer, Sinatra is wholly convincing, and never more so than during a particularly disturbing cold turkey sequence. His concerned mistress and resentful wife – played by a beautifully wooden Kim Novak and over-the-top Eleanor Parker – offer less, but strong support does come from Arnold Stang, who is excellent as Sparrow, Frankie’s slightly retarded friend.


Based on a 1949 novel by Nelson Algren, the film occasionally looks dated, and director Otto Preminger’s slick style sometimes sits oddly with the gritty subject matter. But by breaking taboos, this was real shot in the arm stuff for Hollywood, breaking further ground with a (literally) unheard of jazz soundtrack. Still revered, Bernstein’s score pushes and prods at Frankie’s reluctance to do likewise, creating a tension which lingers long after the end. Brilliant, risk-taking cinema.



Phil Freedman for Culture Vulture:

Frank Sinatra’s portrayal of a junkie dealer-turned-drummer in The Man With The Golden Arm can make a viewer wonder why Darren Aronofsky bothered with Requiem For A Dream at all. Junkies all have the same story–it’s a tale of degradation, desperation, and dead dreams, and it has only two possible endings, kicking or death. The only thing that makes The Man With The Golden Arm a thrilling drama is the skill with which its characters are drawn.


Sinatra is very convincing as Frankie Machine, particularly when he begins drifting back towards full-blown addiction. Presumably his singing career afforded him plenty of opportunities to observe junkie musicians up close. When he starts to twitch and sweat, to cast himself, panicked, from one side of the street to the other in search of his pusher, Louie (Darren McGavin), it never seems like the overly melodramatic acting of someone who doesn’t know the territory. McGavin, though, is the center of the movie. He’s a magnetic presence, treating the sale of heroin like a seduction rather than a mere cash transaction. Ever since Milton’s Paradise Lost, the Devil’s had all the best lines; McGavin’s part is the best in the movie, and he knows it. He slides through the frame, half Bela Lugosi and half Snidely Whiplash, dangerous and blackly hilarious at the same time.


The vast majority of this movie is better than ninety percent of what’s out there now, and if nothing else, The Man With The Golden Arm proves that drug stories aren’t exclusively the territory of hip, nihilistic ’90s film-school wunderkinder.


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