Man with the Golden Arm
Drama | 119 mins | Released: 1955
Director: Otto Preminger
Starring: Frank Sinatra, Kim Novak, Eleanor Parker, Arnold Stang, Darren McGavin, John Conte, Doro Merande
Our Rating: 8
Black & White
A Frankie Machine (Frank Sinatra) is released from prison with a set of drums and a new outlook on life, and returns to his run-down neighborhood on the North Side of Chicago. A heroin addict, Frankie became clean in prison. On the outside, he greets friends and acquaintances. Sparrow (Arnold Stang), who runs a con selling homeless dogs, clings to him like a young brother, but Schwiefka (Robert Strauss), whom Frankie used to deal for in his illegal card game, has more sinister reasons for welcoming him back, as does Louis (Darren McGavin), Machine’s former heroin dealer.
Frankie returns home to his wife Zosh (Eleanor Parker), who is supposedly wheelchair-bound (but secretly fully recovered) after a car crash some years earlier. Frankie comments on the whistle she wears around her neck, a device she used in Frankie’s absence to summon a neighbor, Vi (Doro Merande) when needed. With Frankie home, Zosh smothers her husband in their small tenement apartment and hinders his attempt to make something of himself. He thinks he has what it takes to play drums for a big band. While calling to make an appointment, he bumps into an old flame, Molly (Kim Novak) who works in a local strip joint as a hostess and lives in the apartment below Frankie’s.
Frankie soon gets himself a tryout and asks Sparrow to get him a new suit, but the suit is a stolen one and he ends up back in a cell at a local Chicago Police Precinct. Schwiefka offers to pay the bail. Frankie refuses but soon changes his mind when the sight of a drug addict on the edge becomes too much for him. Now, to repay the debt, he must deal for Schwiefka again. Louis is trying to hook him on heroin again, and with no job and Zosh to please, pressure is building from all directions.
Soon Frankie succumbs and is back on drugs and dealing marathon, all-night, card games for Schwiefka. He gets a tryout as a drummer but spends 24 hours straight dealing a poker game. Desperately needing a fix, Frankie follows Louis home, attacks him, ransacks his house, but can’t find his stash of heroin. At the audition, with withdrawal coming on, Frankie can’t keep the beat and ruins his chance of landing the drumming job. When Louis goes to see Zosh to try to find him, Louis discovers that Zosh has been faking her paralysis and can walk. Zosh, scared of being found out, pushes Louis over the railing of the stairwell to his death, but things backfire when Frankie is sought for murder.
Initially not realizing he is a suspect in Louie’s death, Frankie goes to Molly hoping to get money for a fix. After learning that Det. Bednar and the police are looking for him, Molly convinces Frankie that he must go cold turkey if he is to stand a chance with the police. Frankie agrees and is locked in Molly’s apartment where he goes through a grueling withdrawal to clear the drugs from his body. Finally clean again, he tells Zosh he is going to leave her, start anew and stand trial. In her desperation, Zosh once again gives herself away, standing up in front of Frankie and the police. She runs, but can get no farther than the outside balcony. Trapped, she blows the whistle and throws herself off the balcony to her death. A police ambulance then arrives to remove Zosh’s lifeless body and drives away, while Frankie watches in dismay. He then walks away with Molly.
The Man with the Golden Arm is a 1955 American drama film, based on the novel of the same name by Nelson Algren, which tells the story of a heroin addict who gets clean while in prison, but struggles to stay that way in the outside world. It stars Frank Sinatra, Eleanor Parker, Kim Novak, Arnold Stang and Darren McGavin. It was adapted for the screen by Walter Newman, Lewis Meltzer and Ben Hecht (uncredited), and directed by Otto Preminger.
It was nominated for three Academy Awards: Sinatra for Best Actor in a Leading Role, Joseph C. Wright and Darrell Silvera for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White and Elmer Bernstein for Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture. Sinatra was also nominated for best actor awards by the BAFTAs and The New York Film Critics.
The film was controversial for its time; the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) refused to certify the film because it showed drug addiction. The black-and-white film uniquely portrayed heroin as a serious literary topic as it rejected the standard “dope fiend” approach of the time. It was the first of its kind to tackle the marginalized issue of illicit drug use. Because it dealt with the taboo subject of “narcotics,” Hollywood’s Production Code refused to grant a seal of approval for the film, and it was released without the MPAA’s seal of approval. This sparked a change in production codes, allowing movies more freedom to more deeply explore hitherto taboo subjects such as drug abuse, kidnapping, abortion and prostitution. In the end, the film received the code number 17011.
Director Otto Preminger had previously released a film lacking the Production Code with The Moon is Blue (1953). He told Peter Bogdanovich why he was attracted to Algren’s novel: “I think there’s a great tragedy in any human being who gets hooked on something, whether it’s heroin or love or a woman or whatever.”
Frank Sinatra — who jumped at a chance to star in the film before reading the entire script — spent time at drug rehabilitation clinics observing addicts going cold turkey. The script was given to Marlon Brando around the same time as Sinatra, who still harboured some anger at Brando, since the latter had beaten Sinatra for the lead role in On the Waterfront.
The picture was filmed for six weeks at RKO Studios in Hollywood, California from September 26 through November 4, 1955.
The Man with the Golden Arm earned $4,100,000 at the North American box office and the critical reception was just as strong, with Variety magazine stating: “Otto Preminger‘s The Man with the Golden Arm is a feature that focuses on addiction to narcotics. Clinical in its probing of the agonies, this is a gripping, fascinating film, expertly produced and directed and performed with marked conviction by Frank Sinatra as the drug slave.”
Marlon Brando was offered the role of Frankie Machine, but Frank Sinatra jumped at the opportunity and was signed before Brando could accept.
The movie’s poster was rated #14 of “The 25 Best Movie Posters Ever” by Premiere.
Screenwriter Walter Newman was unhappy with Eleanor Parker as Zosh and related in a 1972 interview that he told Preminger that Shelley Winters should be cast in the role. The writer thought Joanne Woodward would be fine in the role, but she hadn’t acted in a film as yet at that point and Preminger turned her down.
Except for a few exteriors on the RKO backlot, the entire movie was shot on a soundstage
Frank Sinatra is mentioned twice in Nelson Algren’s 1949 novel on which the film is based.
According to screenwriter Walter Newman, Preminger was interested in Montgomery Clift as Frankie Machine, but the actor was either unavailable or uninterested.
In a conversation with Robert Osborne, Frank Sinatra Jr. said the hands in the tight shots of Frankie’s second dealing belong to Milton Berle.
Ray Bradbury turned down offers to collaborate on the screenplay, along with the screenplay for Anatomy of a Murder (1959), which Bradbury claimed was $200,000 worth of work. Bradbury said of the refusal “I don’t give a goddamn about drugs; it bores the hell out of me. I don’t understand the people who take them. So why would I write a screenplay? I’d get a writer’s block immediately.”
Novelist Nelson Algren initially sold the screen rights to John Garfield’s company. Although a script was developed, the actor’s sudden early death allowed Otto Preminger to acquire the rights.
A poster for director Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones (1954) is prominently featured on the building across the street from the saloon during the opening scene.