The Man with the Golden Arm (Otto Preminger, 1955)

Frankie looking in through the bar window

Frankie looking in through the bar window

This is a fairly short piece – there are many in-depth reviews on the net about this ground-breaking drama, and I can’t compete here, but just wanted to add a few thoughts to the mix. Otto Preminger’s famous work is definitely a film to see more than once –  I’ve watched it twice so far and will definitely return to it in the future. Frank Sinatra’s role as junkie Frankie Machine must be one of the best dramatic performances he ever gave. It’s easy to see why he received an Oscar nomination for his performance.The famous theme music by Elmer Bernstein is haunting and so is the camerawork by Sam Leavitt, as well as the great title sequence by  Saul Bass.

Before getting into talking about the film itself, I’ll just briefly say something about the different versions available to buy. There are many public domain DVDs in the UK with poor-quality prints. (If anyone knows of a UK DVD with a decent print, please let me know and I’ll add in the information.) I instead bought the region 2 German Blu-ray, and was pleased with the quality of the print, which is clear and sharp if not spectacular – but I was disappointed to find that it’s a bare-bones presentation with no special features.  In the US, the film is included in the region 1 DVD box set Frank Sinatra: The Golden Years, and there is a “making of” featurette included. However, this DVD does not include Sinatra’s recording of the title song, The Man with the Golden Arm, which was left out of the movie and disappeared altogether for nearly half a century. The recording is included in the out-of-print region 1 50th Anniversary Edition DVD set, and is also in a lavishly-produced and expensive CD box set, Sinatra in Hollywood 1940-1964, but doesn’t appear to be available outside these two sets.  I’m puzzled as to why, as with Monique in Kings Go Forth, also scored by Elmer Bernstein, Sinatra recorded a song which was left out of the movie… and I’m also impatient to hear it!

Golden Arm 6But back to the film. Drug addiction was a taboo theme in 1950s Hollywood, until Preminger’s powerful adaptation of Nelson Algren’s 1948 novel tore the curtain aside. The film was released without certification under the production code because of its controversial subject matter, helping to pave the way for films to tackle more daring material from then on. The story is set in Chicago, where Frankie Machine (real name Francis Majcinek) emerges from jail at the start, and there is a  great opening scene of him walking past the flashing signboards and looking in at the window of  a sleazy bar before going in, to be reunited with his old pals… and gradually sucked back into his old way of life.

Arriving home from jail

Arriving home from jail

The sets are obviously stylised and artificial, but that helps to create the film’s nightmarish and lurid quality. This is something which it has in common with Algren’s novel, even though the plot has been changed and softened in many ways between page and screen, with a murder mystery added in later on. I’ve just finished reading the book, and Algren paints a picture of a seedy underworld held together by desperate poverty, with addiction as part of the general hell. He knocks readers over the head with repetition, showing the monotony of the lives he records. The film is less grim overall and puts less emphasis on poverty, doing its work with shadows and flaring lights instead – but there is still little possibility of escape for individuals. Despite all the changes to the plot, each time Bernstein’s music starts to build as Frankie finds himself back in the trap and desperate for a fix, the film attains an intensity similar to that of Algren’s despairing, poetic prose. The anti-hero’s relentlessly-charted descent reminded me of Victor McLaglen’s fall back into alcoholism in John Ford’s The Informer.

Sinatra at times looks younger than his 40 years in the role of Frankie, although his face becomes more worn as the film goes on. He gives the character a great vulnerability, as he explains that he has come off drugs in prison and now plans to make a new career as a jazz drummer. Frankie is known as Machine and nicknamed the “man with the golden arm” for his skill in dealing cards at all-night games – but now he aims to turn his sense of rhythm into a more respectable way of making a living.

Eleanor Parker

Eleanor Parker as Zosch

However, his friends are dubious, and his wife, Zosch (Eleanor Parker) doesn’t believe it for a moment. She is determined to make sure he goes back to his regular work of dealing cards, even if it means he will soon get hooked on drugs again. Some reviews I’ve seen suggest that Parker goes over the top as Zosch, but I’m pretty sure this is intentional – she is supposed to be a wildly unstable and demanding character, and Parker does a great job in making her just that. Zosch is in a wheelchair after being injured in a car crash while being driven by Frankie, and loses no opportunity to remind him of his guilt. In the novel, it’s suggested that her paralysis is psychosomatic and she is quite sympathetically portrayed, with the abusive relationship between her and Frankie being seen through both their eyes. Algren makes it clear that she does love Frankie in a way and remembers their courtship fondly, however cruel she is to him in the present. By contrast, in the film she is a monster of selfishness – concealing the fact that she is fully recovered in order to keep Frankie feeling beholden to her.

Sinatra and Novak

Sinatra and Novak

The ‘good’ girl is neighbour Molly (Kim Novak), who supports Frankie where Zosch just drags him down – continuing to believe in him, and even, in a sequence which has since been much imitated in other films and TV shows, taking him into her home to allow him to go cold turkey in order to come off drugs while on the run from the police. Novak’s performance is restfully understated by contrast with Parker’s histrionics, and she makes a good combination with Sinatra. Arnold Stang is also excellent as Frankie’s dog-stealing sidekick, Sparrow, and Darren McGavin brings a sense of self-satisfied, superior menace to the role of drug dealer Louie.

I do feel that the film cops out somewhat in the last 20 minutes or so, and it also heavily stacks the dice against Zosch compared to the novel, where both she and Frankie are seen as victims. Here she becomes the villain of the piece rather than society. But it is still a powerful depiction of addiction and loneliness, and a film where all the different elements, from the sets to that insistent, driving music, hold together to underline those themes in unforgettable style.

Golden Arm 8

"Man With The Golden Arm, The" Frank Sinatra / 1955 © 1978 Bob Willoughby

Golden Arm 5



10 thoughts on “The Man with the Golden Arm (Otto Preminger, 1955)

  1. I love this movie—it’s a 5-star gem for me, and it happens to be my son’s favorite classic film. The acting is absolutely sensational. Quite honestly, I don’t see how Ernest Borgnine beat out Frank Sinatra for the Oscar that year. And Eleanor Parker—well, she was nominated for Interrupted Melody that same year. I happen to think she was nominated for the wrong film. She ought to have been nominated for Man with the Golden Arm.

    Did you know that Mr. Algren wrote Golden Arm wrote the Frankie Machine character with John Garfield in mind. Of course, Mr. Garfield died before the film ever came to be. I read that in Garfield’s biography, Body and soul.


    • Glad to hear you love this one too, Patti. I haven’t seen ‘Marty’ as yet, I must admit, so can’t compare with Ernest Borgnine’s performance, but I can certainly see why Sinatra’s performance in this got him a nomination – “sensational” is right. I also haven’t seen “Interrupted Melody”, but I do like Parker’s no holds barred performance in this.

      I’d heard that Garfield wanted to play Frankie and bought the rights to the film, but I hadn’t heard about Algren having him in mind for the role, which is interesting – thanks for that information! I’m sure Garfield would have done a great job – his lonely punk in ‘He Ran All the Way’ gives a hint of how he might have played it – but it’s hard to imagine anyone playing the part better than Sinatra.


  2. Judy, Thanks for sharing your Interesting thoughts on this film and, in particular, your comparison with the novel.

    After his success with non- MPAA approved, “The Moon is Blue” (1953), Producer/Director Otto Preminger went in search of another
    “controversial” subject to film. He was able to purchase the screen rights and a draft screenplay of Algren’s novel of drug addiction from the Estate of John Garfield, who had intended to star in the film himself.

    Preminger offered the key role of “Frankie Machine” to rivals Sinatra and Brando. it is a matter of history as to who was the first to accept.

    After her career-changing and Academy Award nominated performance in George Stevens’ “A Place In The Sun” (1951) one would have thought that Shelley Winters was the logical choice for the role of Zosh. Unfortunately her stormy relationship with Sinatra on the set of “Meet Danny Wilson” seems to have ruled her out and, Preminger, impressed by Eleanor Parker’s portrayal of wheel-chair bound, Australian Opera Singer, Marjorie Lawrence, in M.G.M’s ” Interrupted Melody” (1955), won the role.

    I thought the usually gifted Miss Parker was miscast in the role of the scheming “monster of selfishness”, and rather out of place in the “sleazy” surroundings. The less experienced Kim Novak, having received extensive coaching from Sinatra and Preminger (as well as numerous “takes”), makes a better impression.

    Judy, I would venture to say that this is the best of Sinatra’s performances on film.


    • Rod, thanks for all this interesting information – I haven’t seen ‘The Moon Is Blue’ or ‘A Place In the Sun’ as yet but would like to do so, as I’m increasingly getting into 1950s melodramas. It’s interesting to wonder how Brando would have played the part of Frankie – as in my comment to Patti above about John Garfield, I’m sure he would have been great, but I can’t help but be glad that Sinatra read the script so quickly and got in first.

      Also interesting to think of Shelley Winters in the Eleanor Parker role – I do like Parker in this although I know you are not alone in thinking she was miscast here. To me she actually makes a stronger impression than Novak in this, because the character is more interesting, but I suspect I am in a minority there… and I might be influenced by reading the book, where Zosch is a more fully-realised character than Molly. Thanks again, Rod, for another great comment!


  3. “The famous theme music by Elmer Bernstein is haunting.”

    Indeed it is Judy, and in fact the jazz-infused score is one of the most beloved of his illustrious career. As such, it is one of the most famous scores ever written. Sinatra gives one of his greatest performances ever in the film, but I would have to agree the last part of the film is problematic. I did not read the book, so I much appreciate your all-encompassing perspective. Excellent point of comparison with McLaglen’s character in THE INFORMER. And much obliged for the DVD availability comparison and round-up. You say you “can’t compete” with all the excellent reviews on the film on-line Judy, but I’d says yours is right with them! Great work here!


    • Sam, I think it’s true to say that if anyone mentions this film then the score and the opening titles are the first thing to pop into most people’s minds. I do agree that this is one of Sinatra’s greatest performances – Rod, in the comment above, argues it is his very greatest. I am torn between a few, but it is definitely up there. Many thanks for all your support all through my Sinatra series, Sam!


  4. Pingback: Which is Frank Sinatra’s best film performance as an actor? | Movie classics

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  6. A great film. One of the first films to tackle drug abuse, it was deemed incredibly shocking
    when it first came out in 1955. Sinatra showed his fearlessness in tackling this matter, especially after his lightweight performances a decade earlier when he played in romantic
    comedies. It is also worth tracking down his wistful version of “The Man With The Golden
    Arm” which predates “Signed D.C” and “Heroin” by ten years.


    • Rob, thanks for the comment – must agree that Sinatra was fearless in this role and really showed what an actor he was. You’ve got me gnashing my teeth with envy over your comments on the song, since I haven’t managed to track it down yet – I think it has only been released on a US DVD and I’m in the UK. But I do hope to hear it before too long.


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