I caught Otto Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm recently on Turner Classic Movies. It is a film I had often heard about but never took the chance to see. I’m glad I finally did.
SPOILERS ABOUND! (for a 58-year-old film)
After the titles by the always-wonderful Saul Bass (with Oscar-nominated music by Elmer Bernstein), the film opens with Frankie Machine (Frank Sinatra) being released from prison. A former heroin addict and dealer in illegal card games, Frankie has kicked the habit in prison and has learned to play the drums, a skill he hopes to transform into a career. Unfortunately, he doesn’t get much support from his wife, Zosh (Eleanor Parker) who clings to him desperately. Zosh is in a wheelchair and depends on Frankie for everything. She wants him to go back to the way things were, with Frankie dealing cards for a living. Despite his efforts to better himself, coincidence and bad luck require Frankie to go back to dealing and he eventually gets hooked on heroin again. Frankie bombs his drumming audition because he can’t get a fix and as things escalate he winds up wanted for murder.
The film is probably best known for its depiction of heroin use and addiction, something which was not only startling, but also very taboo for studio films at the time. The production code was still in effect and the film was actually released without the MPAA’s approval because of its controversial subject matter. The drug use in the film may seem tame compared to films and television shows today, but Frankie’s addiction and spiral is played out sincerely, without any of the campy, paranoid trappings of something like Reefer Madness. It does tend to get a bit melodramatic, but not distractingly so, considering the time and the subject. The film relies on coincidence and convenience for some of its forward momentum, but it all makes sense considering the stasis of the world from which Frankie is trying to free himself. Also, for all of the anguish addiction and withdrawal cause him, near the end of the film Frankie gets clean in what appears to be just one day’s time. Sure that one day is hell for him, but it seems a quick solution to a difficult problem. Also, I’m not particularly satisfied with the way the film ends, with Frankie walking away with old flame Molly (Kim Novak) but there’s much more good than bad here.
While watching this film, what really stood out to me was the careful staging of scenes and the fluid camerawork within them. Many of the takes are quite long, running 2 to 3 minutes without a cut. Preminger doesn’t just point the camera at the actors and let them go as might be the case with some stage adaptations (this isn’t one, but it feels like it). Instead, he lets the camera move with characters in a scene. The camera may follow Frankie into a bar, up to the counter and over to a table where he’ll talk with his friend Sparrow (Arnold Stang) who will then stand up and move to the bar and then out to the door where Frankie is waiting with Louie (Darren McGavin) to share a few sentences of dialogue. It’s fairly complex without being distracting. This technique allows a scene to build naturally (as it might on stage) while also giving the audience access to the entirety of the set/space. It is a showcase for the actors as well as the director and production crew. I was thoroughly impressed by this technique and was sucked into the film by it. I have only limited experience with Preminger’s work, but I’m interested to see more of his work now.
Given the use of long takes, the performances have to measure up, and they certainly do. This really is Sinatra’s film through-and-through. In his post-film wrap-up, TCM host Robert Osborne mentions that this was a role that might have gone to Marlon Brando, but instead went to Sinatra. This is all the more notable because Brando landed the roles of Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront and Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls for which Sinatra was also considered. I’ve seen Sinatra in good (From Here to Eternity, The Manchurian Candidate), bad (Suddenly) and Rat Pack (Ocean’s Eleven, Robin and the Seven Hoods), but I don’t know if he’s been better than he is here. He’s believable as a guy looking to get out, but continually getting sucked in, and he doesn’t go too far over the top when he’s looking for his next fix. It’s no surprise he was nominated for the Oscar, which he lost to From Here to Eternity co-star Ernest Borgnine (Marty).
The other standout in the cast is Eleanor Parker as Zosh, Frankie’s wheelchair-bound wife. By the time this film was made, Parker had already been nominated for two Best Actress Oscars and would be nominated for a third in the same year as this film (for Interrupted Melody–she never won). I almost feel bad for not knowing Parker’s name before seeing this film (as part of TCM‘s month-long salute to her–FYI, she’s still alive at 91). Parker plays things a little more melodramatic than her co-stars, but her character may actually be the most interesting one in the whole film. In fact, I wish we spent a little more time with her (and Frankie) than with Frankie, Schwiefka (the guy who runs the card game, played by Robert Struass) and Louie (the heroin dealer). Zosh is in a wheelchair because her spine was hurt in an accident caused by Frankie some years ago. Zosh even keeps a “Scrapbook of the Fatal Accident” which tied Frankie to her. The kicker is, Zosh can actually walk, and has been faking her injury, apparently out of love for Frankie and fear he’ll leave her. Given her dependence on him, it’s strange she’s not more supportive of Frankie’s efforts to make a new start. A credit to the writing and the performance, there seems to be a lot more going on with Zosh than we ever get to see, and I was intrigued to know more.
Given the strong performances, historical importance and stylistic staging, The Man with the Golden Arm is well worth a look (just don’t watched the cropped version on Amazon Prime or the 50th Anniversary edition DVD, make sure you’ve got the right aspect ratio).