A deep, dark, classic noir about the simple evils of drug addiction, Otto Preminger's The Man with the Golden Arm was a controversial film in its day, and still stands as the first big-budget cautionary tale about the horror of drug abuse. Featuring a stellar jazz score by Elmer Bernstein and sporting those famous opening titles by Saul Bass, The Man with the Golden Arm is a grade-A old-school classic. It's dated a bit over the years, sure, but that doesn't take away from Preminger's craftsmanship in any discernible way.
Frank Sinatra plays Frankie Machine, a former junkie returned to his old neighborhood after a difficult stint in a rehab hospital. Frankie finds that all the old players are still around: Sparrow the barfly, Schwiefka the gambler, Molly the hustler, Louie the dealer, and Zosch, the wife in the wheelchair.
All Frankie wants is a shot at landing a solid gig as a drummer, but it doesn't take long before he's manipulated into the same old routine. Frankie, you see, is a master poker dealer, and the greasy Schwiefka wants Frankie dealing for his game. When Frankie refuses, it kick-starts a series of events that lead to, you guessed it, another trip to Junkiesville. And it isn't exactly pretty.
Those experienced with "drug horror" cinema like Requiem for a Dream and Trainspotting may find much of The Man with the Golden Arm hopelessly outdated and more than a little quaint. But this was a film produced back in the mid-1950s, when the Hays Code prevented subject matter like this from appearing in mainstream moviehouses. Preminger's film was one of the first to reshape those guidelines, and Golden Arm went on to become a rousing success, earning a solid cache at the box office and yielding a trio of Oscar nominations (for Art Direction, Score, and Mr. Sinatra's memorable performance).
Bolstered by an excellent supporting cast an adapted screenplay that keeps the dramatic tension rising throughout, The Man with the Golden Arm might not be as harrowing as it once was, but as a brave and well-constructed piece of old-time movie-making, the thing more than holds up today.
Video: Golden Arm is a title that's been in the public domain for years, which means that just about anyone with the proper equipment can release their very own version. This is explains why the film has been released on rinky-dink DVD labels over and over -- and also why you'll generally find some really grungy picture quality on those releases.
Hart Sharp Video, however, is not a rinky-dink outfit, and their "50th Anniversary Collector's Edition" is arguably the very best DVD release of the film to date. The film is presented in a full frame format, and the picture quality, frankly, isn't quite excellent. The transfer is frequently fuzzy and somewhat flecked with source glitches -- but in comparison to prints shown on television and the numerous low-end DVD releases, I'd say this transfer's a notable step up. One of the annoying things about "public domain" titles is that they don't belong to a studio that would invest the money required for a full digital overhaul. Hart Sharp seems to have done what they could with limited means, and the movie certainly looks watchable enough, but a classic film like this really does deserve a new-fangled facelift. And how.
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 or the original 2.0 mix. The 5.1 audio track is actually quite impressive. Optional subtitles are available in English, French, and Spanish.
On the first disc you'll find a rather excellent audio commentary by film historian Ken Barnes that's laden with historical information on this controversial film, the movie's original theatrical trailer, and an old-school photo gallery.
Disc 2 contains the following Golden Arm goodies:
Music on Films is a 42-minute conversation between Mr. Barnes and legendary movie composer Elmer Bernstein. Recorded in May of 2001, this piece is an absolute goldmine for score-junkies. The early discussion focuses on Mr. Bernstein's music for The Man with the Golden Arm, but you'll also hear insights on titles like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven, Birdman of Alcatraz, The Ten Commandments, Animal House, and several others.
A 95-second Exclusive Frank Sinatra Interview segment sees the legendary actor-musician talking about his role in Golden Arm, while Sinatra - in session, and on set is a 3.5-minute recording of Frank singing a theme song that was ultimately pulled from the final cut of the movie. Disc 2 is rounded out with some cast & crew profiles and some text production notes.
Worth seeing just for Sinatra's performance and Bernstein's fantastic score, The Man with the Golden Arm offers quite a bit more than that pair of assets, and it's easy to see why the film is so well-regarded, even on its fiftieth birthday.