Monday Movie: The Man with the Golden Arm, by David Bax
Even before you realize how great it is, you should know that Otto Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm already earns a place in history by being one of the films that led to the revision (and eventual dismantling) of the Production Code, the draconian morality guidelines that spent two decades trying to rein in American movies. The film wasn’t even officially approved until 1961, six years after its release. But, significantly, that didn’t stop major theater chains from screening it or the Academy from nominating it. They simply couldn’t deny its power. With a striking animated title sequence by Saul Bass and a high-energy jazz score by Elmer Bernstein, The Man with the Golden Arm is ironically lively and dynamic for a movie about how awful heroin addiction is, 40 years before Trainspotting took the same approach.
Frank Sinatra stars as Frankie Machine, a card dealer in a gangster’s illegal game who just got out of prison, where he kicked his habit (heroin is heavily implied but never named explicitly) and learned to play the drums. Now he wants to go straight, join the musician’s union and leave his life of crime behind. The problem is, with the exception of the nice strip club hostess named Mollyl (Kim Novak) who lives downstairs, everyone’s eager for Frankie to get his golden arm back in use dealing poker. That includes Frankie’s wife, Zosh (Eleanor Parker), whom he married as penance for paralyzing her in a drunk driving accident years before. Preminger, using a script liberally adapted from the source novel, illustrates how besting a physical addiction is only part of the struggle; the social situation where it began in the first place could be, logistically, even more difficult to overcome, especially given the film’s harsh view of people in general as almost entirely self-centered and predatory. Preminger highlights these issues by allowing only Sinatra to give a naturalistic performance, while everyone around him chews the scenery. The effect is lurid and nightmarish, like Frankie’s waking life is a never-ending version of Dumbo’s pink elephant sequence.
Still, it’s Sinatra’s and Preminger’s dedication to realism that provides The Man with the Golden Arm its most staggering and lasting power. The section of the film dealing with Frankie’s horrid but necessary experience with going cold turkey (also something of a Trainspotting precursor) is relentless and truly harrowing. It makes The Lost Weekend look like a relaxing getaway.