From its stark main title sequence, incorporating Saul Bass’s animated cut-out of a heroin addict’s arm, to Elmer Bernstein’s jazzy rift of a film score (a departure from the tradition of sweeping orchestral music), Otto Preminger’s The Man With The Golden Arm (1955) is a breakout motion picture so controversial that, at the time of its release, the MPAA refused to authorize its seal of approval.
Based on Nelson Algren’s novel as adapted by Walter Newman, Lewis Meltzer and Ben Hecht, The Man with the Golden Arm was a project close to Frank Sinatra’s heart and he campaigned loudly to play the lead, Frankie Machine – a prison parolee who returns to the life he knew with a new outlook that is tragically doomed to failure.
At first, Frankie’s assimilation back into society seems progressive and smooth. His old buddy, Sparrow (Arnold Stang) a conman selling homeless dogs, is actually a loyal friend who clings to Frankie like a brother. However, the devious card shark, Schwiefka (Robert Strauss) and Frankie’s former heroin supplier, Louie (Darrin McGavin) have ulterior motives for welcoming Frankie back into their fold.
Frankie’s life is further complicated by marriage to Zosh (Eleanor Parker) – presumably paralyzed from the waste down after a tragic wreck some years ago. Perhaps weary of the life her husband once led, Zosh is overprotective – stifling Frankie’s need to move on with auditions for a big band. Frankie runs into his old flame, Molly (Kim Novak). The two rekindle their spark of romance.
Broke and desperate to make a solid first impression on the band, Frankie asks Sparrow to lend him a new suit. To make good on the request, Sparrow steals the clothes and Frankie – now wearing them – is arrested for petty theft; tossed back into a cell. Schwiefka seizes upon this opportunity and bails Frankie out, but with the understanding that Frankie will work off his bail money dealing cards for him. This reluctant alliance begins Frankie’s downward spiral into all night card sharking and eventually, falling off the wagon.
Once more a heroin addict, Frankie resorts to violence to satisfy his fixes, then flubs his audition with the band – his one real chance to get out of ‘the life.’ Meanwhile, Louie discovers the truth about Zosh – that she has been faking her paralysis in order to keep Frankie at her side. When Louie threatens to tell Frankie the truth, Zosh pushes him down a flight of stairs to his death. Unfortunately for Frankie, the police are all too quick to perceive that as a junkie, Frankie has murdered his supplier in a drug-induced fit of rage.
Fleeing to the relative safety of Molly’s apartment, Frankie goes cold turkey in a haunting scene of drug withdrawal. He confesses to Zosh his intentions of leaving her for Molly. The jealous Zosh pretends she saw Frankie kill Louie and testifies to as much to keep Frankie and Molly apart. In the heated exchange that follows, Zosh proves to Frankie that her paralysis is a lie, her shame forcing her to flee to a balcony where she falls to her death. Exonerated of the charges and free of Zosh’s possessive hold, Frankie and Molly depart into the sunlight for a truly ‘fresh’ start.
Given Sinatra’s filmic tenure as everyone’s congenial crooner, The Man With The Golden Arm is a stark departure; though perhaps not surprising when one considers it is preceded with his Oscar-winning ‘straight’ performance in From Here To Eternity two years earlier. Still, the actor’s uncanny knack for recognizing that musicals were, by 1955 on their way out, and that dramatic work in films would sustain his career for another two decades, represents a progressive foresight into looking ahead that few in Sinatra’s generation were able to successfully bridge.
The rest of the cast is superb, with Eleanor Parker being the standout. Preminger’s narrative tempo is engrossing; beginning with a slow lay of the land, then escalating into a fast slalom indicative of Frankie's growing malaise. In retrospect the film seems slightly heavy-handed in its sensationalizing anti-drug message, though it continues to pack quite a wallop.
Warner Home Video’s anamorphic DVD exhibits a fairly solid transfer. The B&W image is respectable. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites are slightly gray. Contrast levels are slightly weaker than expected. Film grain is evident, as are age related artifacts, though nothing that will distract. The audio is mono but well represented. There are NO extras and NO menu for ‘Chapter Stops’!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)