The Man With the Golden Arm is a 1955 American drama and film noir film directed by Otto Preminger, based on the novel of the same name by Nelson Algren. Starring Frank Sinatra, Eleanor Parker, Kim Novak, Arnold Stang and Darren McGavin, it tells the story of a drug addict who gets clean while in prison, but struggles to to stay clean outside of jail. Although the drug is never mentioned in the film, according to the American Film Institute “most contemporary and modern sources assume that it is heroin,” although in Algren’s book it is morphine. The film’s initial release was controversial for its treatment of the then taboo themes of drug addiction and infidelity
Frankie Machine is released from the Federal Narcotic Farm in Lexington, Kentucky, with a set of drums and a new outlook on life, and returns to his decrepit neighborhood on the North Side of Chicago. A drug addict, Frankie becomes clean in prison. On the outside, he greets friends and acquaintances. Sparrow, who runs a sting selling homeless dogs, clings to him like a younger brother, but Schwiefka, whom Frankie used to deal for in his illegal card games, has more menacing reasons for welcoming him back, as does Louie, Machine’s former drug dealer.
Frankie returns home to his wife Zosh, who supposedly needs to use a wheelchair after a car accident some years before that was caused by Frankie driving drunk. Zosh secretly recovered, but pretends to be unable to walk to keep making Frankie feel guilty so he will stay with her. Frankie comments on the whistle she wears around her neck, a tool she used when Frankie was gone to call for a neighbor, Vi, when needed. With Frankie home, Zosh traps him in their small apartment and blocks his attempt to make something of himself. He thinks he has what it takes to play drums for a big band. While calling to make appointment, he bumps into an old flame, Molly, who works in a local strip joint as a hostess and lives in the apartment below Frankie’s. Unlike Zosh, Molly encourages him to follow his dream of being a drummer.
Frankie soon gets himself an audition and asks Sparrow to get him a new suit, but the suit is a stolen one and he ends up back in jail. Schwiefka offers to pay the bail. Frankie refuses, but soon changes his mind when his sees a drug addict on the edge becomes too much for him. Now, to repay the debt, he must deal cards for Schwiefka again. Louie is trying to hook him on drugs again, and with no job and Zosch to please, pressure is building from all directions.
Soon Frankie gives in and is back on drugs and dealing all-night card games for Schwiefka. Molly sees he is using drugs again and runs away from him. He gets an audition as a drummer but spends 24 hours straight dealing a poker game, during which he is found cheating and beaten up. Desperately needing a fix, Frankie follows Louie home, attacks him, and destroys his house, but cannot find his drug stash. At the audition, with withdrawal coming on, Frankie can’t keep the beat and ruins his chance of getting the drummer job. When Louie goes to see to find Frankie, Louie finds out that Zosch has been faking her paralysis and can walk. Zosh, scared of being found out, pushes Louie over the railing of the stairs to his death, but things rebound when Frankie is pursued for Louie’s murder.
Frank Sinatra is mostly known for his music, but people either don’t know or forget that his was also an equally talented actor. Though this film is from is the 50’s, it is just as relevent today as it was then. It shows the way drug additction can completely destroy a person and their relationships. In the film, Frankie Machine’s life is totally destroyed by his addiction, to what is most likely heroin or morphine. He is also addicted to gambling. He wants to be a drummer, but ruins every tryout. He also frequently leaves his wife Zosch alone in their tiny apartment, stays out all night drugging, drinking, or gambling, sometimes all three and he cheats on his wife with night club employee, Molly.
Frankie eventually quits drugs and drinking cold turkey, after Molly convinces him if he wants to stand a chance with the police. Throughout the movie, you see him doped up and drunk, and in a few scenes you see him go through withdrawal from not having the substances his body is craving. Frank Sinatra is fantastic as Frankie Machine, making the character seem so so real, you forget that he isn’t. You really believe that Frank is wasting his life away on drugs, booze, gambling, and an affair. You forget this is the man that was also a popular crooner of songs such as “Come Fly With Me” and “Strangers in the Night,” that is how talented Frank was, or I should say he was multi-talented. Sinatra spent time in drug rehabilitation clinics observing addicts going cold turkey to prepare for his role. He also learned to play drums from drummer Shelley Manne.
Eleanor Parker does a great job as Sophia “Zosch” Machine, Frankie’s wife. Kim Novack is also great as Molly Novotny the nightclub worker. Arnold Stang is does a fine job as Sparrow, Frankie’s friend who sells strays dogs illegally. Darren McGavin does a good job as “Nitty Louie,” and Robert Strauss is equally good as Zero Schwiefka.
Otto Preminger had a hard time getting a Code seal of approval, because of the films content dealing with drug usage, gambling, heavy drinking, and scenes dealing with an affair. Many theaters banned the film, but many still showed it, despite the lack of Code. The movie did receive the Production Code in 1961. Despite the all the controversy, even from the Catholic Church and other conservative religious groups, the film was a critical success.
This film is very slow for the majority of its two hour runtime, but the stellar acting is what makes this film one of the greatest on the subject of addiction. This film could have had more action, to make it more exciting, for those that don’t like super slow and dramatic movies, and yes, I agree to a point, but I also think Sinatra’s acting skills in this picture, make up for that for the most part. Had the lead role gone to Marlon Brando as originally intended, it likely would have had more action, and he would’ve done a really good job, but I don’t think he could have gotten the musician part down. The role was made for Sinatra, though the author wanted Brando and they weren’t satisfied with the end production because of this. Like how Truman Capote who wrote “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” wanted Marilyn Monroe for the lead character in the film version and not Audrey Hepburn.
This movie proved that some singers can do more than just sing. Sinatra proved he could be more than a Rat Pack member, he could sing, dance, and act. He could be romantic, funny, and dramatic. He could do serious and not so serious roles. There is not one happy moment in this entire film, it is depressing and deep, but in ways that make it terrific. You see addiction through the eyes and mind of the addicted, you can almost feel their pain, their sadness, their anger, all their emotions, as well as their highs and lows, great filmmaking does this. It took a really brave and first class director to produce such a film for the time period and he did it with such expertise, on such powerful and controversial subject matters. Not many other films today that deal with the same topic(s), conquer it quite as ingeniously as this one, as they usually go straight to the subject matter and there’s not much else to the plot.
The Man With the Golden Arm goes deep, really deep, then climbs its way out, then digs, and climbs out again, taking you on a two hour ride through the mind and heart of a junkie and gambler. A truly superb and gripping motion picture. 18+ 4.5/5