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!
But 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.
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.
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.
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.