Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Man With the Golden Arm


This is one of those groundbreaking films. When it was released, the MPAA would not give it a seal of approval, because it dealt with drug addiction. It had been sort of okay to portray a drug addict as a pitiful, twitching, wild-eyed maniac desperate for a fix … like a puff of the killer weed, for instance, as in Reefer Madness. But to show that an addict could be an ordinary-looking man, a decent man in most ways, was not allowed. (It followed in the footsteps of The Lost Weekend, with Ray Milland.) After the flick was a huge success, the code was relaxed a bit, paving the way for films like The Days of Wine and Roses. If a sweet executive type like Jack Lemmon could end up in a strait jacket, screaming his lungs out, maybe this was something society ought to take a long, hard look at.

Frank Sinatra is Frankie Machine, an addict who has just been released from prison, clean and determined to stay that way. It doesn’t stay that way for long. He is married to one of the most clinging, dependent, desperate women I’ve ever seen in a movie, portrayed in all her horror by Eleanor Parker. She was injured in a car wreck three years ago, Frankie driving, natch, and is just fine now, only she’s not told anyone, least of all Frankie. She’s playing him for a sap. Sitting pitifully in a wheelchair is her only real hold on him. She does everything but leap from her chair and bite his ankle and make him drag her across the room, clinging like some horrible leech, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to see her actually do that. She is weepingly opposed to his ambition, which is to get a job as a drummer in a band. She wants everything to go back to like it was, with him dealing an illegal card game. Darren McGavin wants that, too, and bamboozles Frankie back into that job, where the stress is so high that he’s soon back on the needle, which Darren happily supplies. Probably the first time anyone saw someone setting up for a fix in a movie, with the spoon and the necktie and all the ugly process of it, though we don’t see the needle go in. And Otto Preminger films this scene well, moving in for extreme close-ups of Frankie’s eyes, jittery at first, then relaxed. Just this once, he promises himself. Just this once. Yeah, Frankie, yeah.

Kim Novak is the girl he really loves, and she lives just downstairs, going out with a jerk, carrying a torch for Frankie. He’s forced to deal, forced to stay up 48 hours until his hands begin to shake and his judgment goes, so that the house is getting wiped out. Then, in a really dumb move, Darren denies him the fix he needs and at the same time commands him to start double-dealing. Naturally, he’s caught at it, and beaten up.

Soon Darren discovers that the girlfriend (called Zosh, and I never quite figured out why) can walk, and gets shoved down the stairs to his death for his knowledge. Zosh sort of implicates Frankie, who holes up with Kim to kick, cold turkey. No snakes crawling out of the walls, just Frankie writhing and hollering and doing the whole withdrawal bit. It’s pretty good performance, for its day. They say Sinatra spent some time in a rehab clinic, watching the hypes come down. It all comes out right in the end, with Zosh exposed and taking her own life.

The movie has very little in common with the novel, by Nelson Algren, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie. (Unsurprisingly, Algren hated it.)

The movie’s poster with its stylized arm was a masterpiece, and was rated at #14 of “The 25 Best Movie Posters Ever” by Premiere. Looking at the rest of them it strikes me that they should have had more than one category, such as pulp (This Gun for Hire) and graphics (Vertigo, Anatomy of a Murder). But there’s no question that this was one of the best. Also, Elmer Bernstein’s wonderful jazz theme is one of the best ever. My high school band played it often, and it was always popular.