Classic Film Club: 'The Man With The Golden Arm'

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Each week Tom Huddleston watches a classic film he's never seen before. The rules are simple: each film must be considered a masterpiece and each must be completely new to him. This week: Otto Preminger's 'The Man With the Golden Arm' (1955)

Though it was the first mainstream Hollywood movie to tackle the problem of opiate addiction, the word ‘heroin’ is never actually spoken in ‘The Man With the Golden Arm’– maybe the producers were concerned that impressionable audiences might be turned on by the cautionary events onscreen and seek out the demon drug for themselves. The past five decades have seen more frank and disturbing cinematic depictions of smack abuse, it’s cures and consequences, but few have managed to top Preminger’s initial shot in terms of entertainment value, emotional impact and sheer, low-life class.

Frank Sinatra brings his usual insouciance and bravado to the role of Frankie Machine, a recovering hophead who took the cure during a five-year stretch at Lexington. Now he’s clean and back out on the street, ready to try out his new skills as a hot jazz drummer and eager to resist falling back into old patterns and habits, no matter how great the temptation. On the surface, the role fits Sinatra like a glove: Machine is a popular guy around the neighbourhood, a cool-as-ice poker dealer with a hidden heart of gold, a nice line in street patter and an eye for the ladies, particularly Kim Novak’s hostess Molly. But it quickly becomes clear that, despite the name, Frankie is a world away from the usual Sinatra character: that surface cool masks a restless, tortured spirit, burning with guilt for the mistakes he’s made and eager to make a mark in the ‘real’ world. It’s a part Sinatra could only have played at this point in his career– a few years earlier he hadn’t been big enough to carry a dramatic movie single handed, a decade later he was content to settle for uncomplicated roles in the likes of ‘Ocean’s 11’ and ‘Robin and the Seven Hoods’.

The script, adapted from Nelson Algren’s novel by ‘Ace in the Hole’ screenwriter Walter Newman and given an uncredited polish by the great Ben Hecht, takes few risks, plotting Machine’s fairly predictable journey from hopeful ex-con to disaffected junkie and back again. There’s a certain amount of unnecessary melodrama, most of it stemming from Eleanor Parker’s wall-chewing, wheelchair-bound spouse Zosch and Darren McGavin’s louche, moustache-twiddling pusher Louie. None of this makes the movie any less entertaining– indeed, quite the opposite–- but it does make the first hour or so rather hard to take seriously.

Any such doubts are forgotten in the final act, as Machine finds himself strung out and on the run for a crime he didn’t commit. Holing up in Molly’s one-room apartment, he’s left with no option but to go cold turkey, locking the doors and barring the windows and just waiting it out. It’s a harsh, unforgiving sequence, Preminger’s God’s-eye camera lurching and swooping around the claustrophobic apartment as Sinatra sweats, moans and prays for deliverance. There have been more confrontational withdrawal sequences in cinema– Gene Hackman’s tour de force in ‘The French Connection II’ springs to mind– but this one is notable not just for the clammy intensity of the design and photography, but because it’s Frank Sinatra up there, the fingerpoppin’ king of cool, writhing and pining and going out of his head.

Overall, ‘The Man With the Golden Arm’ in no masterpiece. Everyone concerned would do better work elsewhere, with the arguable exception of Elmer Bernstein, whose sinuous, abrasive jazz score is one of the finest in cinema. But the film is hugely enjoyable, and surprisingly affecting, thanks largely to Sinatra and Novak, and to Preminger’s stark, uncompromising direction.

Author: Tom Huddleston



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