Monday, July 30, 2018

The Man with the Golden Arm 1955

Otto Preminger's direction & Frank Sinatra's performance are still strong points
of "The Man with the Golden Arm."

'The Man with the Golden Arm' poster, with great graphics that put Saul Bass on the map in Hollywood.

Nelson Algren’s gritty novel, The Man with the Golden Arm, got great reviews and won the National Book Award in 1950. Though somewhat sanitized, the movie version received raves in 1955, as the first film to deal with drug abuse. Some film fans and critics today refer to The Man with the Golden Arm as “dated.” Since the film is over 60 years old, that’s a given. And the Otto Preminger film isn't perfect, for sure. However, while the film seems tame by today’s standards, it was made under strict censorship, yet took an honest look at a taboo subject. The film's makers chose to release the film without the Production Code's Seal of Approval, rather than to compromise any further—a gutsy move for a '50s film.
This is Frank Sinatra's brain on drugs: his girlfriend checks out his pupils by match light.

The story is straightforward: Former card dealer and drug addict Frankie Machine (Majcinek) is released from rehab, ready to make a fresh start, with dreams of becoming a drummer. Just one problem, though. Frankie returns to the same set of circumstances that drove him to drugs in the first place: a gambling boss who wants his ‘man with the golden arm’ to deal; a drug dealer who dangles the bait and snatches it away; a nagging wife who guilt trips him for her accident; a lost love who is still tantalizingly around; and most of all, Frankie’s tendency to fall back on drugs when life gets tough.

Interestingly, though it’s commonly thought that Frankie is hooked on heroin, his drug of choice is never named in the film version. And though the novel is famously set in Chicago, the movie’s locale isn’t mentioned. This is odd and adds an air of artificiality. The film’s depiction of drugs is discreet: Every time Frankie gets high, the camera cuts away. While Sinatra gives it his all in the climactic cold turkey scene, it goes by so quickly, it's like Frank has the 24 hour flu! However, what is shown is portrayed in an honest, non-exploitative way.
The street where Frankie lives...looks like a movie set!

What does date this film for me is not so much the drug depiction, but the artificiality of the slum sets and to a lesser extent, the two female stars. Perhaps the film’s tight budget dictated this, but while its attempt to come off as Actors Studio fifties modern, it looks more like the Warner Brothers’ 1938 Angels with Dirty Faces set. Much of 1954’s On the Waterfront was filmed on location and feels authentic. The Man with the Golden Arm sets are artfully detailed, but you never forget for a minute that you’re looking at a movie sound stage. And though token attempts are made to tone down the glamour, Kim Novak still looks studio styled as the working class bar hostess. And Eleanor Parker, as a wife stuck in a wheelchair, sports luxurious shoulder length curls and false eyelashes. The filmmakers strive for realism with the dingy clothes and apartments, but the two female stars stick out like stylish sore thumbs. 
Eleanor Parker blows as Zosh, Frankie's whining, 'crippled' wife. Parker's performance is like this throughout!

Aside from the artful sets is the equally artificial—and awful—performance by Eleanor Parker. In a part that would have been perfect for career whiner Shelley Winters, Parker comes off like a demanding movie star rather than a slum dweller. Parker plays Zosh, a wheelchair-bound wife whose accident was caused by her drunk driver husband, Frankie. Let’s just say that the guilt-mongering, teary-eyed Zosh is the most duplicitous damsel in distress since Joan Crawford’s Blanche Hudson. I’ve always thought Eleanor Parker was neck in neck with Anne Baxter as the throaty-voiced, arched-eyebrow grande dame of the ‘50s. With a mane of hair that would be perfect if Parker was starring in The Gift of the Magi, perhaps Zosh could have cut off her mammoth mane and sold it for Frankie's next fix. Parker has given strong performances elsewhere. Here, Eleanor is so over-the-top, which hits the heights of absurdity when the fake cripple is caught by drug dealer Darren McGavin, or when she takes her final swan song/dive. The real-life Sinatra probably would have smothered her with the nearest pillow after five minutes of Eleanor’s overwrought emoting. When Parker leaps out of her wheelchair and gives herself away at inopportune moments, it’s like watching a Carol Burnett movie spoof.
Though Kim carries much of her Columbia gloss to this United Artists film, Novak is affecting as Frankie's true love.

In her time, Kim Novak was regularly panned as the worst type of studio-created actress. Kim’s "creation" was part of her publicity, but also became her cross to bear. Still, Novak had her moments, especially in films that exploited her self-consciousness and vulnerability. Kim’s big breakthrough was 1955’s Picnic, and Hitchcock cannily exploited this quality in ‘58’s Vertigo. While Novak wasn’t the most versatile or dynamic actress, those sad qualities Kim possessed work for Molly, the beaten down working girl. Also, Novak and Sinatra share a sad, loners’ rapport that offers some much-needed reality.
Director Otto Preminger rehearsing with Kim Novak and Frank Sinatra.

What’s fascinating is looking at pictures of director Otto Preminger working with Novak and Sinatra. Preminger could make mincemeat of new actors, and yet he seems to have treated the oft-uncertain Kim kindly. And Otto, who was an autocrat on the set, miraculously got along fine with frequently temperamental Frank, who liked to do things his way, such as not doing more than one take. Bob Willoughby’s set photos show them all working intensely and happily.
Frank Sinatra as Frankie Machine, returning home from rehab. Sinatra is so expressive in even the still shots.

Like his singing, Frank Sinatra is subtle and naturalistic when he was at his best as an actor. However, Frank’s acting style got him the rap that he wasn't doing anything onscreen, in some quarters. As an actor, Sinatra always reminded me of his idol Humphrey Bogart—always making it look easy—though obviously Bogie was more dedicated to his craft.
To me, Frank is the one thing that's truly real in The Man with the Golden Arm. This movie came soon after Frank’s legendary comeback in From Here to Eternity. As the down on his luck Frankie, I think the real Frank used some of his recent troubles to convey his character’s pain. His character wears his heart on his sleeve, and that was one of Sinatra's gifts as a performer. Whether Frankie Machine is boyishly optimistic or almost child-like when the chips are down, Sinatra is at home playing this character, and is subtle and superb.
Frankie getting his fix, in 'The Man with the Golden Arm.'

The nifty opening titles by Saul Bass made him a Preminger favorite and the go-to movie titles person in Hollywood for a decade. There’s some stylish, evocative photography by another long-time Otto associate, Sam Leavitt. The bombastic score is by the love him or hate him Elmer Bernstein. I usually enjoy Elmer on a soundtrack, but he’s awfully intrusive here—just as much as that other Bernstein—Leonard—was On the Waterfront! That said, Bernstein did snag an Oscar nod.
Frankie waiting on wheel-chair bound wife Zosh (Eleanor Parker) literally hand and foot.

Overall, this was one of Otto Preminger’s stronger efforts as a director. Though some elements are hokey, he elicits strong performances from most of the cast, and pushed the envelope as far as he could in regard to the drug story line. Plus, Preminger’s modern dramas were more adult and realistic than typical Hollywood fare, even in just the way the male and female characters related to one another. And though The Man with the Golden Arm's author was unhappy with the film's changes, most of them were pretty sound for mid-century film making, and nearly none of them were related to the narcotics aspect of the story.
The Man with the Golden Arm is noteworthy and deserves to be seen, for how Hollywood first dealt with drug addiction on the screen, but especially to watch the heartfelt performance by Frank Sinatra.
Amazingly, Frank Sinatra was fine with a firebrand director...and rehearsing!

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  1. Hi Rick - just watched this one the other night and enjoyed it al lot. You are so right--this is the mid-1950s version of "gritty realism, Hollywood style"--Preminger was more old school than Elia Kazan, and the female stars are not deglamorized enough. But Sinatra and company are all great here, especially the marvelous Darren McGavin and the gimpy guy who played Frankie's sidekick.

    I was impressed with Miss Novak's dramatic chops though...she is very good here in my opinion.

    I always love your blog - so beautifully written and gorgeously illustrated!

    1. Thanks, Chris!
      I got some catching up to do with your last two posts...I'm in the middle of wrapping up a job and moving back home... been bookmarking stuff like crazy to read later!

      And yes, I was impressed by Novak's simple, sincere performance, in stark contrast to Parker's histrionics!

      Cheers, good hearing from you as always!