The Man With The Golden Arm (1955)

The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) is a film noir with  flavours all of its own — whether it be the Saul Bass credits or the theme of heroin addiction — both new elements for 1955 and in their own ways the signs of a new age approaching in cinema.

Frank Sinatra memorably plays the lead in Otto Preminger's adaptation of Nelson Algren's novel, with Kim Novak supplying a sympathetic role beside him, his light indeed in the dark city of film noir, which admittedly is not so very dark here — at least in tone. 

Frank Sinatra plays Frankie Machine, an illegal card dealer and recovering heroin addict who gets out of prison, with a new talent — he's learned the drums. 

On the streets and looking for a jazz band gig, Frankie Machine is inevitably sucked back into the life, encountering all the perils of the familiar noir city — from shady businessmen to vulnerable women, via small-time con men to temptation itself.

And it is not long before Frankie Machine is back at the heroin too, boldly and artfully portrayed by Otto Preminger in a surprising amount of detail for the era.

The wife named Zosh to which Frankie returns, played to neurotic perfection by Eleanor Parker, is trouble in spades, despite being bound to a wheelchair. Frankie in turn is bound to her by his guilt, at having been the one whom in effect put her there by means of an accident while driving drunk.

Eleanor Parker and Frank Sinatra as Zosh and Frankie in
The Man With The Golden Arm (1955)

The Chicago neighbourhood to which Frankie returns is made up of an elaborate set of flats on a movie stage, as opposed to the real city itself. This is a tension we can explore throughout the entirety of the film noir cycle. Noir is either shot on the lot, creating the sense of the claustrophobic city in which the characters are trapped — as here or as in many other pictures, such as Scarlet Street — or it is shot on the streets itself — compare Sweet Smell of Success which is shot on the streets of New York, giving the overall feel of characters absolutely lost in the human and stone expanses of the city.

Frank Sinatra and Darren McGavin in
The Man With The Golden Arm (1955)

Frankie's past is certainly a claustrophobic place to be. There is is his former drug dealer Louie played by Darren McGavin; there is his former employer and small time crook Schweifka (played by Robert Strauss) and there are the two women in his life — Zosh, his wife, who is a wheelchair bound neurotic, whom also seems to be on the make; and using the guilt in Frankie himself, having caused the accident that has left her this way, she pulls and pulls him into a greater misery which he cannot even see; and there is his former friend, Molly Novotny, played by Kim Novak.

Arnold Stang, Frank Sinatra and Robert Strauss
The Man With The Golden Arm (1955)

The entire setting is one of a cage in fact, and the set itself remains tiny, and unable to realistically capture the feel of a city. Instead this film noir presents one man and his tight and tiny cage — even down of course to the local cop, played by renowned film noir character actor, Emile Meyer.

Alleys and corners created on the sound stage of film noir
The Man With The Golden Arm (1955)

Finally, and despite the great scenes of Frank Sinatra playing those drums, and the shocking idea of portraying heroin use at all in the 1950s, The Man With The Golden Arm may be just as famous for its opening credits, which were done by Saul Bass, accompanying a score by Elmer Bernstein.

These credits are universally adored and famous in their own right, and show a jagged and snaking silhouette of an arm breaking into pieces. 

Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak, the beautiful ones. Lovers in a cruel world 
The Man With The Golden Arm (1955)

Sinatra himself shines as an actor, with a lot of soul in his pores, and when he's together with Kim Novak it seems that everything is in place for a sound emotional anchor, and is just as well because the scenes with Frankie Machine and his wheelchair bound wife — played by Eleanor Parker— are harder work, almost as if this neurosis, which threatens to engulf the scenery with its melodrama, are harder to portray than the heroin use itself. 

Heroin abuse portrayed in
The Man With The Golden Arm (1955)

The use of heroin was something that was not done at all in pictures at the time, and if you wanted to suggest it, a director would resort to showing a character repeatedly using a nasal spray, or simply sniffing anxiously throughout.

The great sniffing scene in The Man With The Golden Arm takes place in a local prison cell, where Frankie finds himself, caught up in a rap concerning the stolen suit he is wearing. In the cell, where there are a cinematic crowd of 50s ne'er-do-wells, there is a heroin user, who starts on the sniff, and works his way up to the full-on screaming withdrawals which see him carried off the scene.

Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak
The Man With The Golden Arm (1955)

It's this shock reminder of the junk that sends Frankie Machine back into the hands of his dealer — although when he gets there, the scene was too realistic for the Motion Picture Association of America, who refused to certify the film.

Good old Preminger did not back down however, as he had experienced something similar two years earlier with his production of The Moon is Blue, which was also refused a certificate because of its treatment of illicit sex. In both cases, Preminger simply held on through the release of the picture, received the inevitable moral censure from the usual quarters, and the MPAA had to back down. 

The hard-wearing film noir theme throughout however is not drugs, but of a man being trapped in his environment, whether it be romantic, moral, social and in this case too — narcotic. The drugs in fact acts as much as a metaphor as they do a plot device — and there was certainly no widespread public knowledge or experience of drug use upon which to tap. 

Kim Novak on a sound-stage created street in
The Man With The Golden Arm (1955)

Although the script was given to both Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando, who maintained a screen rivalry, the role of Frankie Machine was originally to be given to John Garfield. However Joseph Breen, of the the famous nemesis of film noir and controller of the Production Code office, would not permit the film to be made at first, and by the time this had changed, Garfield had sadly died young, in 1952.

Frank Sinatra brought a huge amount to this role, the least of which was musicality. He brings a vulnerable aspect that keeps The Man With the Golden Arm alive, and does the tortured facial expressions well enough to be convincing, and does not overplay it. His cold turkey scene is amazing as well, and looking handsome and glamourous without effort helps bring the character of Frankie fully alive and compelling.

Emile Meyer interrogates Arnold Stang in
The Man With The Golden Arm (1955)

If evidence were needed that film noir was prepared to look at human depths, The Man With The Golden Arm could supply it. Film noir at its best simultaneously provides two viewpoints. First there is that of the hero, generally a man who is in some kind of weakened social and emotional role. As an ex-con and ex-addict, Frankie Machine is all at sea; and film noir becomes about the possibility of redemption and rehabilitation.

Often in film noir, fate and social conformity — even if it is conformity to crime — pull hard against our lead, and swamp him with urban difficulties. Every character in a good film noir plays a role in achieving this. They are either going to be standing in the way of the character's achievement or trying in vain to help reach it — in a resistant universe.

Frankie has friends, it's true, but the best of these, a character called Sparrow played by comic actor Arnold Stang, is powerless in the face of what are always going to be greater forces — these are not only criminal, but include a falsely-based sense of loyalty and morality to a wicked women — herein his wife Zosh — as well as a police force that doesn't care and a world of criminality that never seems to offer an exit either —  merely more fateful pulling down towards the sorry and inevitable fate.

It's not that film noirs don't have happy endings — they are if anything already taking place at the end of the line. The heart of any good film noir will often be in the male-female relationship at its centre, and Kim Novak and Frank Sinatra provide everything solid in this production. A weakened male lead in film noir will often find himself accompanied on the journey by two types of women — one he can trust for whatever reasons, and one he cannot.

Kim Novak's character Molly does provide trust, but of course can only help so far. She has her own faulty male at home, in this case a drunk called Joe. At one stage we can enjoy also the hypocrisy of Frankie as he puts down Joe as a lush and a worthless drunk, ignoring the flaws and habits he has himself cultivated as a junkie.

Frank Sinatra plays cold turkey in
The Man With The Golden Arm (1955)

And it is Molly's apartment where Frankie — earlier denied the possibility of using it practice his drumming, away from the censure of his neurotic wife — where Frankie undergoes his amazing cold turkey, in scenes fully realised by Sinatra.

The Man With The Golden Arm is one of a handful of films around the time, which were brave and able to tackle the subject of heroin addiction — not an easy prospect in the 1950s.

The other two notable addiction movies from this period were Monkey On My Back (1957) by Andre de Toth; and A Hatful of Rain (1957); although of the three, The Man With The Golden Arm may be the most enjoyable and accessible.

This monkey is a popular character, as the dialogue from The Man With The Golden Arm surely shows:

The monkey is never dead, Dealer. The monkey never dies. When you kick him off, he just hides in a corner, waiting his turn.

and 'Dealer' Frankie Machine's own take on the spiral:

Who knows why I started in the first place? I guess in the beginning it grew on me for kicks. Louie gave me my first shot for nothin'. And I thought I could take it or leave it alone. So, I took it and I took again and again. One day Louie wasn't around. I nearly went crazy till I found him. Oh, I was sick. I was so sick. You can't be that sick and live. That's when I knew I was hooked. There was a forty-pound monkey on my back. The only way to get along with a load like that is to keep leaning on a fix.

High on the list of Films About Addiction, what's dynamic about The Man With The Golden Arm is the shocking prospect of seeing how the cycle works, being a real-life Film About Heroin as well.

The reason this noir works so well however is the cosy and homely nature of the relationship between Sinatra and Novak  —  Frankie Machine and Molly Novotny. They're poor, and trapped on this ridiculous sound stage, on which Molly leaves her job in a night club with the other sassy dames of the night, and walks home across the road, to where Frankie is playing his drums quietly at the hearth, accompanying the radio.

Both these scene stealers come alive when together, and in the midst of the shocks of petty crime, disability, neurosis and of course heroin addiction, they make a warm and welcome change, a real love that any moviegoer should have and may well have aspired to. The way that Frank tucks up Kim at the end of her shift is touching and not sentimental, simply because of the fact that in this life, this is as pure as it gets —  two kids just trying to get on in America.

Eleanor Parker blows it ... for a happy ending in
The Man With The Golden Arm (1955)

It is not however realistic, and maybe that is to its credit too. But at the end of this last scene, Frank sleeps on the chair, rather than crossing the hall to his own home. It seems an odd kind of affair on the surface, but this is film noir, and as such it is dealing with fantasy.

In this world of fakers and hucksters, it's great to have a friend, and even better if that friend is not a drug or alcohol addiction. Of course these young hopefuls end up outside a shop window at one point, looking in an excited manner at the trappings of the mid-century life; the new electric stove and all its kitchen accoutrements. link to download The Man With The Golden Arm (1955)

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