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RELEASED: 1955, Cert. PG
RUNNING TIME: 119 mins
DIRECTOR/PRODUCER: Otto Preminger
SCREENPLAY: Walter Newman & Lewis Meltzer
MUSIC: Elmer Bernstein
Frank Sinatra as Frankie Machine
Arnold Stang as Sparrow, Frankie's friend
Darren McGavin as Louis
Kim Novak as Molly
Eleanor Parker as Zosh, Frankie's wife
FILM ONLY REVIEW
Based on Nelson Algren's novel of the same name, The Man With The Golden Arm tells the story of reformed heroin addict and dealer, Frankie Machine, trying to ease himself back into the outside world after having spent some time in a rehabilitation unit.
When Frankie returns home clean, he has big ambitions towards becoming a drummer in a jazz band, yet his wheelchair-bound wife Zosh (who is an extremely manipulative woman) tries to persuade him to return to dealing drugs, as that's where the money is. Fruitlessly, Frankie tries to get Zosh to understand that going back to dealing would push him into using heroin and becoming a junkie once more, whereas if he were to find a job as a drummer in a band, their money troubles would be over.
Picking up the old threads in the city slum community where he lives, Frankie gradually becomes drawn back into the world of drugs, and under constant pressure from his previous supplier (Louis), he falls off the wagon, submitting to his addiction....also, his wife Zosh harbours a secret!
To find out what else happens, you must watch the film yourself.
Back in 1955 when The Man With The Golden Arm was released, it caused a lot of controversy due to the topic being that of heroin addiction. During the mid to latter part of the 1950s, a number of films were made which dealt with social issues that upset large swathes of people, but I personally feel most of those films have deservedly gone down as all-time classics - another example which springs to mind is the gritty schoolroom drama, Blackboard Jungle, released three years later.
The Man With The Golden Arm is filmed in black and white and age has rendered it a little grainy, but it's still very watchable. It has been said that Frank Sinatra spent time in drug rehabilitation units studying how patients behaved during heroin withdrawal, but I'm not sure whether that is truth or hearsay - I'd guess the former, as within the realms of what was considered borderline decent at the time of the film's release, Frank Sinatra did act out parts of cold turkey withdrawal very well. The only complaint I'd have - and this is probably more about the production/direction of the film than Frank Sinatra's acting - is that I'd consider it highly unlikely somebody in the depths of screaming cold turkey would have the physical strength to do some of what the character of Frankie Machine did. On the other hand though, a screenplay had to be created and stuck to, and there are certain aspects of cold turkey withdrawal which would in those days have been unacceptable to put on film and show to the viewing public, so maybe my assessment of Frankie's physical abilities whilst in withdrawal isn't entirely fair.
The whole atmosphere of the film is steeped in a delicious, spine-tingling sleaze which at certain points I can find reminiscent of some of what was going on around me during the early part of my childhood - at home and elsewhere - and I consider that to be an advantage for me whilst watching The Man With The Golden Arm, as it gives me the ability to absorb the essence and mood of the whole production without prejudice.
It isn't clear to me (and maybe it's of no importance) whether the film takes place in Chicago or New York, but wherever it's supposed to be, the area where Frankie, his wife Zosh, his ex-girlfriend Molly and the crowd who he picks up with again once out of rehab hang out, is a festering, yet very lively slum where a lot seems to be happening on an almost 24/7 basis. The streets are lined with shabby multi-occupancy tenement housing and there appears to be an abundance of shady bars, strip joints, gambling dens, and dope peddlers lurking around in seedy shop doorways. The atmosphere of this inner city decay with its accompanying sleaze is exacerbated by the musical score to the film; a kind of music that I can't slot into one particular category, suffice to say it's a combination of urgent-sounding big-band jazz and urban blues.....and, I love it!
As far as the overall acting is concerned, everybody played their parts admirably, but I warmly hand the accolade to Frank Sinatra for his portrayal of Frankie Machine. I've had to step down from a pedestal to say this, because in the normal way I have little or no time for Frank Sinatra, but in this film above all others that I've seen him in, he has convinced me that he would have made a much better actor than a singer. He put (as far as old-fashioned filming techniques and levels of acceptability to the 1950s public allowed) his heart and soul into playing the role of a junkie in remission who finds himself unable to resist the temptation that is all around him. It's my own, quite likely controversial opinion, that the lead role in The Man With The Golden Arm was Frank Sinatra's finest point in his whole, very lengthy career primarily as an singer, and secondarily as an actor.
From the acting and story aspects, I believe that The Man With The Golden Arm has admirably stood the test of time, and I feel it's well worth tolerating 1950s filming technology, plus accepting that social attitudes were very much less tolerant of topics which pushed all sorts of boats beyond the tide mark than would be so today, in order to enjoy this extremely well-made, well-acted, ground-breaking (for its time) film which in my book is an untouchable classic.
Currently, The Man With The Golden Arm can be purchased on Amazon as follows:-
New: from £1.56 to £16.57
Used: from 94p to £4.99
A delivery charge of £1.26 should be added to the above figures.
At the time of writing, The Man With The Golden Arm can be watched in full, unbroken, on YouTube. As it is quite difficult to find, I provide the link below although I would recommend purchasing the DVD if you want to watch and enjoy a good copy. I did see this YouTube upload a couple of years ago before I bought the film on DVD, and although it is watchable, there are a couple of annoying faults in it where the continuity appears to 'break' for a few seconds here and there - these 'break' incidents don't happen on my DVD copy.
The YouTube link is:-
There are also quite a few clips/trailers of the film on YouTube should you wish to get a taster before purchasing the DVD.
Thanks for reading!
~~ Also published on Ciao under my CelticSoulSister user name ~~
Picking a favourite film is difficult, picking one to write a review about makes things worse, there are so many to choose from! I thought Id be slightly different and tell you about a film, which I think, is a classic for very many reasons but that maybe few people reading this will have heard of
The Man With the Golden Arm not to be mistaken with the 70s Bond movie of with a very similar title is rightly considered to be a groundbreaking film and is worthy of its status as a minor classic.
Made in 1955 a time of repressive censorship and very conservative attitudes the controversial subject matter of the film meant the release was delayed for a year while changes in the censorship rules were made.
Based on the gritty crime novel by Nelson Algren, this is the story of Frankie Machine a small time gambler musician and heroin addict. Frankie has just been released from jail and is determined to give up his drug habit and his gambling in order to make a career for himself as a Jazz drummer. Unfortunately his greedy wife Zosch doesnt agree, she wants him to carry on making money on the poker tables and is determined to thwart his ambitions by any means. Thinking himself responsible for Zosch paralysis ( he doesnt know what the viewers discover early on ) after a car crash Frankie feels obliged to do as Zosch wishes. When an opportunity arises for Frankie to act as dealer in a high stake poker game arranges by a local gambling boss Frankie begins to doubt his abilities and turns to drugs. It maybe that Frankies only hope is the love of another woman Molly. Murder, lies and betrayal eventually lead to a violent conclusion.
CAST, PERFORMANCES AND OPINION
Frank Sinatra .... Frankie Machine
Eleanor Parker .... Zosch Machine
Kim Novak .... Molly
Arnold Stang .... Sparrow
Darren McGavin .... Louie
Directed by Otto Preminger and written by Nelson Algren (original novel), Walter Newman, Lewis Meltzer and Ben Hecht.
For those of you that only know Frank Sinatra for his crooning rather than straight acting, this film should be a revelation, not that this is the only instance that his acting talents have been on show, he was praised for other performances in other classic films like From here To Eternity and the recently re-made The Manchurian Candidate.
Sinatra really puts in a great performance as the edgy, weak, manipulated and improbably named Frankie Machine (a refenrece to his card dealing skills), part time musician, gambler and full time heroin addict. Dont be fooled in the film when you hear dope mentioned they are talking about heroin rather than marijuana.
Originally the role was going to be offered to Marlon Brando fresh from his Oscar win for On The Waterfront but Sinatra beat him to the post or at least to the contract. Its interesting to consider what Brando wouldve done with the character but its difficult to see how he couldve topped Sinatra in this instance, high praise indeed!
Sinatra was concentrating more and more on serious roles in this period of his career. He had shaken off his pretty boy heart-throb image a few year previously when he won the best supporting actor Oscar for his role in From Here To Eternity and in this film we see to an extent a reprisal of that role in the way that he expresses the vulnerability of Frankie Machine an individual who although with good intentions his never quite in control of his own destiny.
The director Otto Preminger another giant of the film world was no stranger to raising controversy with his films, they often focused on the darker side of life and featured brutality, prostitution and violence. In this feature Preminger decides to tackle the problem of addiction not by demonising the addict as many other films did and still do but by painting them as a sympathetic if flawed figure.
In the same way that Lost Week-End (1945) exposed the reality of alcohol addiction, The Man With The Golden Arm (TMWTGA from now on!) lets us in to a world of sleaze and violence that for many 50s cinema audiences simply didnt exist. However worthy subject matter does not necessarily a good film make! Beyond its important social commentary TMWTGA is a well-observed atmospheric and pacey drama/thiller.
Like many of Premingers earlier films it has a Film Noir feel to it, lots of darkly lit scenes brought in to shaper contrast in by the use of Black and White, excellent dialogue and fine acting not just by its star but by Eleanor Parker as the scheming wife and a very young and beautiful Kim Novak three years before her big break in Hitchcocks Vertigo.
Preminger was always a craftsman and the look of his films were always distinctive. It is no surprise then that attention to detail and style is paramount. Although filmed on a small budget mostly using the Studio soundstage for the interiors the atmosphere created through lighting and camera angles makes you ignore any other design failings. This is most clearly in evidence in the most well remembered scene from the film where Frankie tries to give up the drugs and goes 'cold turkey'. Most filmgoers now will have seen depictions of withdrawal in many films, a memorable example being Gene Hackman in The French Connection 2. However I still think that not many will have surpassed the emotional impact and tension that we see here.
One further aspect of the film that is worth mentioning is the music. Elmer Berstein famous for such film score as Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963) was brought in to create a Jazz soundtrack that would accompany the sleazy lowlife feel of the film. This proved to be a triumph and Bernsteins music is now seen as groundbreaking the first real example of a mainstream film using an entirely jazz musical score as soundtrack. This is available on CD and for anybody watching the film and wanting to hear more it is worth a listen.
Any lovers of film and film history will have to watch this movie. It marked a change in cinemas attitude toward portraying unsavoury aspects of life in mainstream cinema not by use of innuendo or symbolism but by facing the subject head on. It also marked the first use of a specialised genre specific film score and succeeds as a tense, emotional drama on all levels a tribute to the skills of the people involved.
For any one interested it can be bought from Amazon.co.uk for the ludicrously low price of £3.99 on DVD (+p&p)
Thanks for reading and rating this review.
© Mauri 2005