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The Man with the Golden Arm

The Man with the Golden Arm
Warner DVD
1955 / B&W / 1:85 anamorphic widescreen / 119 min. / Street Date May 13, 2008 / or with Some Came Running, The Tender Trap, None but the Brave and Marriage on the Rocks in the Frank Sinatra - The Golden Years, 39.98
Starring Frank Sinatra, Eleanor Parker, Kim Novak, Arnold Stang, Darren McGavin, Robert Strauss, John Conte, Doro Merande, George E. Stone, Leonid Kinskey, Emile Meyer
Cinematography Sam Leavitt
Production Design Joseph C. Wright
Film Editor Louis R. Loeffler
Original Music Elmer Bernstein
Written by Walter Newman, Lewis Meltzer from the book by Nelson Algren
Produced and Directed by Otto Preminger

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Frank Sinatra was awarded an acting Oscar for From Here to Eternity but he truly earned it in Otto Preminger's landmark film The Man with the Golden Arm. Nelson Algren's novel had once been considered as a vehicle for John Garfield, until it became clear that any film about drug addiction would never be granted a Production Code Seal. Independent producer Preminger was willing to take risks that the studios were not. Always keen to break the power of the Code, Preminger intuited that a censorship battle would generate free publicity that could be utilized to position Arm as a must-see special event movie.


Poker dealer and heroin addict Frankie Machine (Frank Sinatra) returns from the prison hospital clean and sober, only to find that the pressures of life on the street are too much for him. He's learned to play the drums and is eager to find work with a band, but his crippled, controlling wife Zosch (Eleanor Parker) only wants him to stay with her. Frankie is trapped in a guilty marriage to Zosch because he crippled her in a car crash. Insecure and unhappy, Frankie strays in the direction of nightclub girl Molly (Kim Novak) and is abused by two greedy and manipulative associates. Schweifka (Robert Strauss) schemes to make him go back to dealing for illegal poker games. Pusher Louie (Darren McGavin) gets Frankie hooked on dope again, just as his big band audition is coming up.

Otto Preminger had already scored a success against censorship with his 1953 romantic comedy The Moon is Blue. The film defied the Code's edict that the words 'virgin' and 'pregnant' could not be spoken in a movie. Moon also refused to cut dialogue in which Maggie McNamara and William Holden debate the double standard, and the idea that a young woman might have sex before marriage and still be a 'good girl'. The resulting furor transformed a fairly innocuous comedy into a solid hit. The Man with the Golden Arm challenged an even stronger real cinema taboo. Any depiction and most mentions of drug use had disappeared from screens with the enforcement of the Production Code 21 years earlier. The Man with the Golden Arm shows in detail the preparations for shooting up heroin, holding back nothing save the actual image of a needle entering an arm. Even more harrowing is Sinatra's portrayal of a violent cold turkey withdrawal episode. Many audiences had never heard of substance withdrawal, let alone seen such a thing represented on film.

The Man with the Golden Arm is not a Film Noir. Sinatra's Frankie Machine (his real name is Majcinek) is a clear victim of pernicious social forces, as opposed to an existential or moral dilemma. The selfish, possessive Zosch weakens his sense of self-esteem. Louie and Schweifka want Machine hooked so they can control him. Schwiefka has Frankie busted for theft, and then bails him out with the proviso that he must resume his career as the poker dealer 'with the golden arm'. Frankie has nowhere to turn. The only law in sight is Emil Meyer's cynical detective, who considers junkies to be beneath concern or sympathy. Drained of hope, Frankie follows Louis to his room for another fix. He's headed for the bottom when Molly assumes the responsibility of drying him out once more.

Otto Preminger was not the kind of director to present sordid realism on the screen. His elaborate Division Street exterior set is almost as antiseptic as Sam Goldwyn's cleaned-up slum in the 1937 Dead End, and the beautiful Kim Novak looks like a movie star at all times. With its colorful array of skid row denizens (Arnold Stang, Doro Merende, Leonid Kinskey), the movie plays like a Damon Runyon story with a severe case of depression. Preminger also knew that the extremes of Nelson Algren's bleak novel would need to be softened for general audiences. In the book, Frankie murders a man and hangs himself. His crippled wife goes crazy and Molly becomes a prostitute. Walter Newman and Lewis Meltzer's screenplay overturns this fatal determinism in favor of a melodramatic, hopeful finish. Preminger and his writers invent a twist ending that lets Frankie off the hook much too conveniently, and contrive to give him a new beginning with Kim Novak's Molly.

We're told that Kim Novak was so insecure that many takes were needed for each of her scenes, something that doesn't show in the final product. Eleanor Parker succeeds in a thankless role, bringing to life the film's least believable character. The supporting actors also do excellent work as well. Arnold Stang's sneak thief Sparrow hits just the right note, as do Robert Strauss and Darren McGavin as Frankie's worst enemies. But it's ultimately Sinatra's movie. His committed performance compensates for the fake sets and the unusually lifeless B&W photography. In less-than-optimal prints, The Man with the Golden Arm can easily be confused with a contrast-starved Kinescope.

Preminger makes use of long takes when he can, using cranes to follow Frankie in the torment of withdrawal, and track characters through the Division Street set. The Man with the Golden Arm's animated main titles attracted major attention for Saul Bass' dynamic design. His stylized 'crooked arm' graphic condenses the entire movie into a single symbolic image. Elmer Bernstein's innovative jazz score also makes a strong first impression, and started a trend for jazz in movies that lasted five or six years.

Thanks to Otto Preminger's brilliant use of publicity, United Artists were able to obtain plenty of bookings for The Man with the Golden Arm despite its lack of a Production Code Seal. When the censor boards of three cities demanded cuts, he took Baltimore to court in Maryland. When he won the case, Preminger declared that he had "established freedom of expression for motion pictures". Six years later, the film was granted the Code's Seal of Approval. By that time, he had also helped break the infamous Hollywood blacklist as well.

Warner Home Video's disc of The Man with the Golden Arm appears to be the first really satisfactory presentation of this classic on DVD. It was released theatrically by United Artists, but several DVD editions have been released by various labels, all of them flat full frame and some of them of very poor quality. This edition gives the movie back its 'film look', although the pale lighting still reminds of old B&W TV soap operas. The excellent transfer also restores the film to its correct matted widescreen aspect ratio. The tighter framing enhances Sinatra and Novak's performances.

A making-of featurette Shoot Up / Shoot Out covers the The Man with the Golden Arm controversy before, during and after filming, in a suitably nervous, graphics-heavy style. Biographer Foster Hirsch participates in the interviews, adding a number of important observations to the film's fascinating history. An original trailer is included as well.

Research source: Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King by Foster Hirsch. Alfred Knopf 2007

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Man with the Golden Arm rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Making-of featurette, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 7, 2008

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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