#595) The Man with the Golden Arm (1955)

#595) The Man with the Golden Arm (1955)

OR “Monkey Business”

Directed by Otto Preminger

Written by Walter Newman and Lewis Meltzer. Based on the novel by Nelson Algren.

Class of 2020 

The Plot: Frankie Machine (Frank Sinatra) returns to his Chicago neighborhood following a stay at a Narcotic Farm. Having finally kicked his heroin addiction (which he refers to as the “forty pound monkey on my back”), Frankie has aspirations to get his life together and become a professional drummer. Frankie’s plans are constantly put to the test by his berating, wheelchair-bound wife Zosh (Eleanor Parker), his old drug dealer Louie (Darren McGavin), and gangster Zero Schwiefka (Robert Strauss), who wants Frankie and his “arm made of pure gold” back dealing his illegal card games. With only his old flame Molly (Kim Novak) and sidekick Sparrow (Arnold Stang) by his side, will Frankie finally get the monkey off his back? And will any of this get past the censorship restrictions of 1955?

Why It Matters: The NFR praises Preminger’s treatment of the subject matter, as well as Sinatra’s “unvarnished” performance, Saul Bass’ “eye-popping” credits and Elmer Bernstein’s “remarkable” score.

But Does It Really?: “The Man with the Golden Arm” is on this list as representation of an early attempt to break down the Production Code, pure and simple. As a film viewed 65 years later, it’s…fine. Sinatra is good as always, and the film’s frank (forgive me) portrayal of drug addiction holds up well, but the film occassionally veers too close to melodrama to be viewed with total seriousness. “The Man with the Golden Arm” deserves to be on this list for its historical significance, and its 31 year wait to make the cut is not surprising or unwarranted.

Wow, That’s Dated: The Narcotic Farm that Frankie stays at in Lexington, Kentucky was a real place, one of two commissioned by the US Government in 1929. The legislation was repealed in 1944, with both farms ceasing operations by the 1970s in favor of more advanced treatment in rehabilitation centers.

Title Track: Despite this movie’s dour subject matter, Sinatra actually did record a title song, which was ultimately rejected by Preminger. The song went unreleased until 2002 as part of a collection of Sinatra’s Hollywood career.

Seriously, Oscars?: A controversial success upon release, “The Man with the Golden Arm” received three Oscar nominations. Frank Sinatra lost Best Actor to Ernest Borgnine’s more endearing work in “Marty“, while the film lost Art Direction and Score to, respectively, “The Rose Tattoo” and “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing”.

Other notes 

  • Following the release of Nelson Algren’s novel in 1949, the film rights to “The Man with the Golden Arm” were purchased by producer Bob Roberts with the intention of making a vehicle for John Garfield. This attempt was repeatedly discouraged by Joseph Breen and the Production Code, who stated that no film centering around drug addiction would receive a PCA seal of approval. Following Garfield’s death in 1952, the film rights were purchased by Otto Preminger. After his 1953 film “The Moon is Blue” (the first American movie to be released without a PCA seal), Preminger was confident he could make and release “Golden Arm”; funding the project with his own production company and giving distributer United Artists the option to bail if the film didn’t receive the Code’s approval.
  • As always, Saul Bass knocks it out of the park with his opening credits. His trademark minimalist lines (with a stylistically crooked arm) makes a memorable visual, matched by Elmer Bernstein’s fervent jazz score (an early success for the young composer).
  • It’s so weird seeing Darren McGavin playing the heavy after associating him with his later, more lighthearted work in “A Christmas Story“. And Louis is such a menace to Frankie, pushing him to relapse throughout the movie. Don’t you know how fra-jee-lay Frankie is right now!?
  • Also in the “Not expecting them in a drama” category: Arnold Stang. With his rough, caricatured New York accent and his turtle-without-a-shell appearance, Stang works surprisingly well here as Frankie’s ever-faithful wingman. And so help me, I will get Arnold Stang’s other great film role on this list one day.
  • Preminger’s version of “The Man with the Golden Arm” differs enough from its source material to cause a falling out with (and a later lawsuit from) novelist Nelson Algren. For starters: in the novel, Frankie is addicted to morphine as a result of injuries sustained during WWII. In the film, Frankie is addicted to heroin (though it’s never mentioned by name), and his wartime service is barely mentioned.
  • It’s nice to see both Kim Novak and Eleanor Parker in roles more versatile than the parts they are permanently identified with. As Molly, Novak is taken down from the voyeuristic pedestal “Vertigo” placed her on and gets to play a more realistic, flawed figure. And while it’s refreshing to see Eleanor Parker in anything beyond her thankless role in “The Sound of Music“, her overly dramatic work as Zosh is one of the reasons this film flirts with melodrama as often as it does.
  • To get around much of the more scandalous dialogue, there’s a lot of unspoken things happening between the lines. A few times throughout the movie, someone asks Frankie, “How are you? I mean -” followed by Frankie nodding his understanding while simply replying, “I’m clean.”
  • Sinatra is, of course, quite charming in this role. It takes an actor with that much charisma to make your feel for him when he hits rock bottom. The scene where Frankie finally relapses is a gut punch, amplified by an extreme close-up on Sinatra’s face as the soundtrack intensifies the main theme.
  • A hallmark of any low-budget production: plenty of single-take shots to save time on set (exquisitely orchestrated by Preminger’s go-to cameraman Sam Leavitt). One of the more unfortunate side effects to this, however, are the frequent appearances by the camera’s shadow at the bottom of the screen.
  • This film would pair well with fellow NFR entry “On the Bowery“. You could swap either movie’s background characters and not notice.
  • Today in workaround censorship: “You miserable piece of humanity”. Subtle.
  • The bandleader at Frankie’s audition is real-life jazz musician and arranger Milton “Shorty” Rogers. He is no actor, and it deflates what is an otherwise heartbreaking scene.
  • [Spoilers] As is often the case with Code era films, the movie starts to go off the rails the more it deviates from its source material. In the novel, Frankie does in fact kill Louie, and his run from the police ultimately leads to his suicide in a flophouse. The film opts to make Zosh the unintentional murderer, as well as making her paralysis a manipulative charade rather than psychosomatic. It definitely robs the film of its drama, and the obviously fake dummy of Louie as he falls does not help.
  • Being more familiar with Sinatra’s Vegas/”Chairman of the Board” years, it’s so odd watching him play someone who lacks any control in his life. Frankie’s struggle to go cold turkey at the end is harrowing to watch.

Legacy 

  • Despite the constant objections from the PCA during production, United Artists stood by “The Man with the Golden Arm”, with UA president Arthur Krim calling the film “one of the most important pictures ever handled by the company”, and publicly hoping the PCA would see the film’s “immense potential for public service”. Despite rumors that the PCA would revise their rules in the lead-up to their decision, the Code did not grant “Golden Arm” their seal of approval. More surprisingly, the National Catholic Legion of Decency (Hollywood’s other major censor hurdle) only gave the film a “B” or “morally objectionable” rating, marking the first time the Legion did not give a “C” or “condemned” rating to a film that didn’t receive a PCA seal. This slight discrepancy, mixed with several large theater chains showing “Golden Arm” despite its lack of PCA approval, led to a revision of the Production Code for the first time in over 25 years. Under these more relaxed provisions, “Golden Arm” received a PCA seal of approval in 1961 (along with “The Moon Is Blue”).
  • Otto Preminger continued his run of taboo-laden films throughout the ’50s and ’60s, including “Anatomy of a Murder” and “Advise and Consent”. Totally unrelated but equally noteworthy: Preminger played Mr. Freeze on two episodes of the ’60s “Batman” TV show. I can’t believe I’ve gone this long without mentioning that!
  • I can’t find any conclusive evidence that Ian Fleming named his 12th (and ultimately final) James Bond novel “The Man with the Golden Gun” after this movie, but it was published in 1965, so anything’s possible. The only thing I remember about the 1974 film adaptation is its catchy title song.

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