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Swine’s Guide To Classic Films With A Heroin Theme # 3
The Man With The Golden Arm by Otto Preminger (1955)
by Phil Thornton
Yes, once again readers, we delve into the murky underworld of fillums to do with drugs and stuff with perhaps one of the earliest and most accurate representations of skag abuse; The Man With The Golden Arm.
The plot is this: Frankie Machine (boss name), played by Frank Sinatra is just out of jug and is back in his old stomping ground on the mean streets of Chicago. He looks in on his old crowd of drunkies, hustlers and drop outs in the local alehouse and Louie, his former dealer immediately hits on him but - get this – Frankie’s off the dope, he’s clean, he’s through wid all that. Next he goes to see his wheelchair bound missus, Zosch in a tatty tenement block (see he’s got his priorities straight; bums and flunkies first, auld girl second) and she’s made up to see him because she’s been so lonely and skint because his former boss, Schwiefka, the card shark, hasn’t been sending through the dough he’s been putting aside for her welfare while he took the rap for the creep six months back.
Thing is; Zosch is like Andy from Little Britain and is only cracking on she’s crippled because Frankie’s reckless driving caused them to crash and she’s totally dependent on him and he’s filled with guilt and remorse and can’t leave the brooding, needy broad for Molly, the fit lass on the floor below (Kim Novak) who he’s been seeing on the sly. Zosch wants Frankie to go back to dealing (dealing cards that is) because Frank’s the best dealer in the game, in fact he’s so good he’s known as The Man With Golden Arm. See, that works on two levels. However Frankie knows that returning to ‘the game’ will be too much of a temptation, now that monkey’s off his back and wants to pursue a new career as – wait for it – a jazz drummer. Yeah cos the last place you’d look for smack is a jazz club right?
But anyway, bit by bit Frankie gets drawn back into his old habits and becomes embroiled in one last game and takes a few more hits before finally going straight. Louie just bides his time and soon Frankie’ll do anything for a fix, even ripping off a pair of big time gangsters by fixing a game on Louie’s instructions. He goes for the long promised drumming audition fixed up by his prison doctor but blows it, batters Louie to steal his stash and tries to ponce off Molly, who’s had enough of bums and junkies to last her a lifetime but still lets Frankie move his drums into her apartment and lets him go cold turkey in her new pad.
Meanwhile Louie’s after Frankie and calls into his pad to find Zosch up on her feet. He thinks she and Frankie are pulling off some incap scam and when he threatens to tell the neighbours who’ve run around after her for years, she knocks him over the balcony and he falls to his death. The cops are convinced Frankie’s the culprit and when Molly’s drunky ex-fellar sees her with the newly clean dealer/drummer, he rats out to the plod. They come for Frankie just as he’s telling Zosch he’s leaving and find her on her feet pleading with him to stay. Hey, she can WALK, maybe SHE killed Louie after all. Zosch flips out, blows her ‘need’ whistle and jumps to her death. Frankie and Molly walk off together. He’s clean, she’s fit as fuck, goodbye to Louie and bent card games and hustling and digging and all caper, hello Florida Supper Club Jazz Gigs By The Pool…..perhaps.
It’s a corny story and although the set is predictably phoney and some of the acting is as wooden as the fixtures and fittings, this, for its time, is a shockingly uncompromising film. The film is an adaptation of the book of the same name by Nelson Algren who also wrote A Walk On The Wild Side, the story of a New Orleans brothel (made into a film in 62). The dark, film noir stylings and the equally dark subject matter provided Sinatra with his first non-singing serious lead role (although he had already impressed as Maggio in From Here To Eternity a few years earlier). The same year Ole Blue Eyes starred as Nathan Detroit in Guys & Dolls and there can’t be too more diametrically opposed visions of the American underworld; one a glitzy, glamorous technicolor fantasy world of showbiz hoods in 1000 dollar suits, the other a scabrous portrait of petty felony, addiction and emotional wreckage.
Not that Golden Arm doesn’t have its faults. The characters are only ever wafer thin and often verge on caricature. There’s the scheming Jew (Schweifka), the loveable doofus (Sparrow also called ‘Punk’ throughout the film, played by Arnold ‘Voice Of Top Cat’ Stang who must’ve provided Dustin Hoffman with the inspiration for Ratso in Midnight Cowboy in this role), the tart with a heart (Molly), the dapper dealer (Louie) and the essentially decent man trying his best to clean up his act (Frankie).
It’s all a tad too Tennessee Williams with that enclosed sense of claustrophobia and relationships always verging on the point of collapse and yet, even with some pretty weak material Sinatra’s performance is nothing less than brilliant and this was a brave move for a former teen idol keen to shake off his bobby sox image. At one point as he discusses his new alter ego, Jack Dupree, he asks Molly ‘do ya think the bobby soxers’ll go for me?’ in a knowing wink to his croon idol past. Sinatra is a fantastic actor, never overdoing it and going for the hammy, theatrical gesture but underplaying his role and filling the dialogue with believable, wiseguy patter. Unlike say Paul Newman in The Sting or even Steve McQueen in the Cincinnati Kid, Sinatra plays the hustler better than any other actor of his generation. He radiates charisma whenever he’s on screen and always convinces even when he’s rattling to fuck.
All in all this film deals with some powerful issues in a pretty sympathetic manner, given the conservative post-war climate of American culture at the time it was made. Heroin was still seen as predominantly a ‘black’ drug and although the plot makes it clear that the hero will triumph in the end, given the love of a good woman and a few breaks from the law, the message throughout is that the fear of smack addiction will always be there for the addict, even when he or she is clean. Frankie Machine may be clean as the credits roll but for how long? Sinatra received a Best Actor In A Leading Role Oscar nomination for his part as did the marvellous Elmer Bernstein score. Every time, Frank gets an itch, that Bernstein coda strikes up and builds til he’s popping a vein. From the celebrated Saul Bass opening graphic sequence to the score, direction, script and performances, The Man With The Golden Arm is a triumph, showing the downside of the supposed ‘American Dream’ that few movie makers or politicians would admit to.
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