Man With the Golden Arm, The (1955)

Man With the Golden Arm, The (1955)

“The monkey is never dead, Dealer. The monkey never dies.”

Synopsis:
A drug-addicted ex-con (Frank Sinatra) returns to his neighborhood hoping to start a new life as a drummer, but is challenged by both his neurotically clingy wheelchair-bound wife (Eleanor Parker) and his former dealer (Darren McGavin), who’s eager to get him hooked again. Will a kind neighbor (Kim Novak) and a loyal friend (Arnold Stang) help him stay clean?

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “effective Otto Preminger drama” — “famous for having defied the MPPA Code by dealing with drug addiction” — features Frank Sinatra giving “one of his best performances as Frank Machine”; Kim Novak “in one of her most relaxed, appealing characterizations”; and “taut and daring” direction by Preminger. However, he expresses frustration at the film being “much different than Nelson Algren’s prize-winning novel“, both in terms of altering “the book’s tragic ending” and in shifting Frank Machine’s “internal struggle and… ability to come to grips with his environment” towards “the struggle between good Novak and bad Parker for his soul”. While I haven’t read Algren’s novel and can’t speak to the motivations driving its protagonist, I was persuaded by Parker’s character symbolizing Sinatra’s “crippling” ties to his past, and Novak representing compassionate stability (the scene in which she holds Sinatra tight while he’s shivering on the ground is particularly moving). McGavin — best known to film fanatics as “Old Man Parker” in A Christmas Story (1983) — is eerily menacing as Sinatra’s dealer (ironically, he refers repeatedly to Sinatra as “Dealer” given Sinatra’s work as a poker game croupier). Elmer Bernstein’s driving score is top notch, and the cinematography is appropriately atmospheric. This one remains worth a look.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Frank Sinatra as Frankie Machine
  • Darren McGavin as Louie
  • Kim Novak as Molly
  • Eleanor Parker as Zosh
  • A refreshingly candid look at drug addiction
  • Sam Leavitt’s cinematography
  • Saul Bass’s opening titles
  • Elmer Bernstein’s jazzy score

Must See?
Yes, as a powerful overall drama and for Sinatra’s performance.

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One thought on “Man With the Golden Arm, The (1955)

  1. First viewing (all the way through). Not must-see.

    I have an unusual history with this film. Over the years, I tried at least 5 times to watch it; I would start it, get about 10-15 minutes in, and stop. It just didn’t pull me in.

    I finally forced myself to get through the whole thing. And, generally speaking, I don’t find it all that convincing. On top of that, I find it rather… lethargic. But no doubt – because of Preminger’s pushing-the-envelope trademark – it had more power when it was released.

    But that was then. Since then, there has certainly been no lack of films about addiction – and a number of them are genuinely harrowing. Personally (and I may have said this before), I’m not all that big on films about addiction. I mainly find them inert. They really have nowhere to go, narrative-wise, although they often make for plum roles for actors. Exceptions tend to be when there’s something else going on in the film that effectively serves to offset the addiction element… or when the writing of the main character(s) is unique.

    For most of its running time, ‘TMWTGA’ just sort of plods along with a lackluster script. And the film isn’t helped by its overly studio-bound look. While the last half-hour begins to pack some genuine punch, even that is a mixed-bag. (Maybe my favorite scene is when Sinatra shows up for his orchestra audition, and blows it; it has an authentic feel to it.)

    When he’s headed towards and then finally going through withdrawal, Sinatra gets the opportunity to act. For the most part, Novak is playing some kind of one-note fantasy woman – while Parker plays a one-note nightmare woman. This is one of Parker’s OTT roles. When she’s in that mode, sometimes she can either still turn in a fine dramatic performance (i.e., ‘Lizzie’) or she’s entertainingly in camp territory (‘The Oscar’). Here, she’s just annoying.

    Of the cast, McGavin comes off best (though it’s unfortunate when an obvious dummy is used for his death). As well, I rather liked Stang as Sinatra’s buddy… esp. in his two short scenes with Doro Merande as Vi (one of which is rather funny; I could have watched a whole movie starring the two of them).

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