“The Man with the Golden Arm” (1955) is such a product of its time that it is fascinating that the movie can still remain so powerful. There is a fable-like quality to the film that seems to transcend the decades between then and now, during which we have learned in more detail the horrors of drug addiction, the criminality of the drug world, and the hopelessness of a life of dependence. More sophisticated films in after years have given us valid, accurate information, a more realistic presentation, and an intense experience; but they have not always given us a reason to really care about the characters and see ourselves in them.
Perhaps it is simply the nature of more realistic films to narrow the focus on a particular character and set of circumstances. We are shown a lifestyle, a neighborhood quite possibly dissimilar to the lives and environments of most of the audience. Therefore, the movie, no matter how engrossing, becomes a film about “them.”
Likewise, along this vein, a modern film might focus on a particular economic class, i.e., the wealthy Hollywood addicts whose addiction is emblematic of their super-charged and privileged lifestyle. Or, we might be shown the lower class junkie scratching for survival in a dangerous world of gangs. If the film becomes focused on an economic class, it also gets focused on race. More and more, peeling away the layers and focusing on a narrow viewpoint, it becomes a story about “them.”
“The Man with the Golden Arm”, though certainly considered gritty and realistic for its day, and attracted some controversy, nevertheless opens the story outward rather than focuses inward, and the Runyonesque characters lend a kind of “everyman” quality to Frankie Machine and his neighbors. It’s not so much about “them” as about everybody.
The film is shot on a set, but while probably its attempt at realism would have been better served with location shooting, even this adds to the fable quality of the story. Here, in this tight little neighborhood, Frank Sinatra returns from a six-month prison term with a new set of drums and high hopes for a better life. He has kicked a heroin habit and learned a new trade in jail, and intends not to return to his old lifestyle as a card sharp working for the local tough guys.
We see, perhaps even sooner than the optimistic Frankie does, that he is being drawn into his old life and habits that will lead to disaster. Frank Sinatra, in one of his best roles, plays the part with compassion and sensitivity. Eleanor Parker is good in an ugly role as his clinging wife, who wants him to remain as a card dealer in the illegal game down the block, is threatened by his talk of pursuing a career as a drummer in a big band, and wants him to remain tied to her. She is in a wheelchair, her injury caused by an auto accident with a drunk Frankie at the wheel. His guilt is part of the reason he turned to drugs, and her continuing to manipulate his guilt will drive him back to the local drug pusher. We learn early in the film that she is faking her injury, only one of a number of people surviving by playing angles in this depressed little world.
Eleanor Parker, whom most likely remember as the elegant and subtly treacherous Baroness in the “The Sound of Music” (1965) had a versatile career. Scrambling out of the B-movie jungle in the late 1940s, she seemed to hardly ever play the same type of role twice, and she digs her fingernails in on this role. Though manipulative, her character is probably as much a victim of her own ignorance in a world where survival skills are based on what you can take from others.
Kim Novak plays the woman Frankie would most like to be with, were he not duty-bound to remain with a dependent wife who needs him. She works in a local dive, supports a lazy, dependent, alcoholic boyfriend, and though as much a product of this grim world as Parker’s character, she looks beyond it, and shows Frankie the encouragement and support he needs to get off on the right foot. More than just the long-suffering woman behind the man type of role, this is one of the few strong female roles in the 1950s when damsels in distress, neurotics, or fallen women were the usual fare. Novak holds Frankie’s future in her hands, and eventually she sees this and takes responsibility. She and Frankie are the heroes because of the risks they take and the courage they display.
Arnold Stang is Frankie’s squirrelly sidekick, a simple chump whose particular survival skills are a knack for petty thievery and a true gift for friendship. He also, if helplessly, tries to steer Frankie from old habits, because he loves him. Stang is ironically believable in this role, considering it is such a cartoon.
Darren McGavin plays the smarmy drug pusher, who first got Frankie hooked and wants him back. He and Novak, though they are both the cleanest-looking and best dressed people in the film, are at opposite poles, and they work on Frankie from opposite motives, the devil and the angel on either of his shoulders.
That Frankie appears to be his only customer in the neighborhood makes us wonder a bit what Mr. McGavin did while Frankie was in jail.
Another star in film, besides Sinatra and Novak, is the penetrating score by Elmer Bernstein, played by Shorty Rogers and his Giants. We hear the blare of the trumpets in a jazz nightmare whenever Frankie is about to fall off the wagon. The use of the music to indicate what is going to happen is a trigger to the audience that also seems to belong to this era. We don’t see too much of this thing anymore, except in horror or suspense films, i.e., the swimmer-is-about-to-be-attacked-by-the-shark music in “Jaws.”
A couple scenes from the film illustrate the fable quality in a rather sweet way. One is when Sinatra and Novak stand before an appliance store window. Male and female mannequins are set up in a modern kitchen display, the sort of 1950s suburbia heaven that people from Frankie’s neighborhood might hardly dare believe is real. Sinatra and Novak pretend a make-believe scenario and dialogue for the mannequin couple, and we see that Frankie is reaching, innocently if earnestly for not just a better life, but a nicer one. His anticipation over his upcoming audition for a band is not just about hitting it big and striking it rich. One imagines he would make a lot more money dealing cards for the racket, where he is famed as “The Man With the Golden Arm.” He doesn’t want that anymore. That’s all his self-interested wife wants for him, but he wants more for himself, and her, and his little buddy Arnold Stang.
The other moment in the film is the well-known cold turkey withdrawal scene. Having hit some setbacks, Frankie turns to heroin again, and seeks Novak to give him money for a fix. By this time, Novak wants something better too, has found the guts to search for it, and so kicks out her lush boyfriend, moves away to a different apartment, and tries to get on with her life. When Frankie finds her, we see she has a metal lunchbox and her street clothes indicate she’s not working in a dive anymore. She challenges him to get through his withdrawal and get off the heroin, and locks him in her apartment so that he can.
Frank Sinatra’s intense scene that follows, with him bouncing off the walls in agony, is impressive. The scene, like most of the film, is a fable of humanity, and losing it, and finding it, more than it is of drug addiction. An unexpectedly sweet moment, keeping the fable on track, is when Frankie collapses shivering to the floor and Novak, covering him with blankets chokes a broken prayer, and seeing that the blankets are not helping, crawls on top of him to warm him with her own body.
Maybe is it these moments of helpless innocence that make a fable out of subject matter that is so sad and so ugly. The film has no triumphal ending, only a glimmer of hope, a sense of peace, of calm after tragedy, but that is enough. Mr. Sinatra’s and Miss Novak’s characters don’t really seem to be asking for much.