The Man with the Golden Arm

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Though The Man with the Golden Arm is ostensibly about heroin addiction, in actuality it is about much more than that. It is about guilt, desperation, and manipulation, and about how these things drive a man to heroin. These themes are combined with great dialogue, restrained direction, strong performances, and a driving score to give us a great look into the darkness that causes addiction.

Frankie Machine (Frank Sinatra), just got out of rehab. He learned to play the drums inside and now he’s hoping to get a job in a band and turn his life around. He’s burdened by with his wife Zosch (Eleanor Parker) who was crippled in a car accident several years ago and needs expensive treatment. Other demands are placed on him by Louis (Darren McGavin) and Schwiefka (Robert Strauss). Schwievka needs him to deal cards, and that works out better when he’s addicted to the heroin Louis supplies. The only people who don’t seem to need anything from Frankie are his friend Sparrow (Arnold Stang) and on again off again girlfriend Molly (Kim Novak).

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When Frankie first comes back, he’s full of hope. He’s going to get a job with a band, do what he loves, and will have no problem staying off drugs. Anybody could guess from the way that he keeps announcing these things that his improved quality of life is not going to last very long.  Whenever he gets stressed, he is tempted to take more drugs. The film is fairly sympathetic towards him though; it makes sure that we know how other people are influencing him in his decisions. Louis always manages to show up in a moment of weakness. He is very good at manipulating Frankie into doing drugs again; he hooks people by giving them their first shot for free. This ensures he’ll get more money later after Frankie and others like him become loyal customers. He is a very ominous character, especially in the beginning when before Frankie has succumbed. A repeated shot of him at an angle saying “I’ll be around” is very sinister and tempting. He’s never going away.

Louis is partnered up with Schwiefka, a gambler who employs Frankie as a dealer. They both run the games together and need Frankie to get people to play. As long as Frankie is trying to improve himself, he doesn’t think he needs to deal for them. All of his problems in the film are interconnected; he can’t escape drugs as long as he is dealing and he can’t drum as long as he is on drugs. Louis and Schwifka are using him, keeping him dependent on them so he doesn’t have a choice whether to deal or not. Zosch also pushes him to deal because it brings the money in; she doesn’t seem to concerned whether Frankie is in danger or not.

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Zosch is a fascinating character in her own right. She has a strange obsession with the car accident that left her in a wheelchair; in a key scene it is revealed that Frankie was the one driving and they got married in the hospital afterwards. Zosch has always used her disability as a way to get Frankie to stay with her, and it works. He says to Molly that he can’t bear to leave Zosch alone when she’s so helpless, but Zosch is really bringing him down. Frankie may addicted to heroin, but Zosch is addicted to sympathy and attention, and just like Frankie she’ll do anything to get them. I thought it was interesting how the beginning of their relationship wasn’t shown in a flashback, just referenced to a couple of times. Frankie’s guilt over what he did to Zosch is very important and a strong motivator, more so than it originally appears.

The only real weakness in terms of characters here is Molly. She’s a great person and very helpful to Frankie. She’s the only one who believes in him and actually wants to see him get better. Sparrow does to I suppose but he’s not strong enough to do anything but follow Frankie in whatever he does. When Frankie’s connection to the band is supposed to call him back but doesn’t, it’s Molly who encourages him to call the guy. Zosch’s doubts about getting the job have gotten him down, so he’s too nervous to do it without her. Though Molly is important to the story and Frankie, she doesn’t have any backstory of her own so we don’t exactly know why she’s doing all of these things. Zosch and Frankie are fully fleshed out but Molly is left as something of enigma, and it bothers me. It seems as if she is only there to help Frankie.

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The score by Elmer Bernstein is integral to the film’s impact. It’s very jazzy and seems to fit right into the environment. The cymbals sometimes sound very nervous, reminding us of how Frankie’s hands shake when he’s in withdrawal. There’s a great scene where he finally auditions for the band when this becomes a problem. He has to walk out because he can’t control the shaking of his hands and it’s a very painful scene because we know how much this means to him. While the cymbals in the score still have a beat to them, they remind us of Frankie’s nervousness and lack of control. There are also numerous scenes where Frankie goes across the street to Louis’ for a fix. The music grows and grows and you hear his frustration and desperation building up as he walks. Each time it happens you know why he’s crossing the street, and the repeated image and sound wears the audience down just like it wears Frankie down.

The performance’s are great all around, though Novak and Parker have a few flat moments but overall they are very good. I never thought of Sinatra as much of an actor but he shines in this film. He is able to capture Frankie’s pathetic side and as well as his determination and strength to overcome his problems with the people around him as well as his addiction. The bleak black and white setting matches the films’ tone perfectly. Also worth mentioning is the title sequence by Saul Bass; it’s another great one from him, providing the dominant jagged arm image for the film. For the most part, Preminger gets out of the way and allows the story to be told. This is appropriate as the story itself is dramatic enough for the actors to handle without the director getting unnecessarily fancy. While I don’t know how it holds up against today’s standards of addiction in films, I think its depictions of the characters will hold up for a long time to come.

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“Everybody’s habitual something.”

Long story short: 3.5/4 stars

For Further Reading:

Film Noir of the Week (more background about the novel and its adaptation)
New York Times’ 1955 review (unfairly dissmissive in my opinion)
Variety 1955 review

2 responses to “The Man with the Golden Arm

  1. About Kim Novak: This was basically the first time she was allowed to be an actress. At Colombia under Harry Cohn, she was essentially treated as a “piece of meat” (Cohn’s own words), someone to look at but not spend time building, so all her prior roles she would basically only have a few takes and the studio would have her dub her lines later on. Otto Preminger didn’t know this when he borrowed her, but he and Sinatra were very patient with her, allowing a lot of takes for her to become comfortable. So in essence, this is her first real performance.

    Preminger really liked her, but could never cast her again because Cohn controlled her like a hawk, so he went talent searching and found doppelgänger Jean Seberg, who he tried but pretty disastrously failed to build. She did go on to be in Godard’s Breathless though.

    On the movie itself: I like Sinatra and Novak (their scenes are the best), Parker seems overblown at times, the stock cast is, well, stock. The movie hasn’t aged that well, but no drug movie really does I think. Still interesting for the performances though.

    Anyway, love the blog, longtime reader.

    • Thanks for the background info! That second part about her doppelganger is really ironic considering what happens in Vertigo.
      She was really good here though, even though he character didn’t really stand alone.
      Yeah, I can see how people would think it hasn’t aged well. I haven’t seen a lot of addiction movies and I saw this for the first time at a pretty young age, so it had a profound impact on me (ie scared me witless). The characters and how they interact and manipulate each other makes it interesting to me even if the drugs weren’t in the movie. And of course it was relevant at the time for the censorship implications.
      Glad to hear it! Thanks for the comment; hope you come back again sometime!

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