Monday, March 18, 2013

Reeling Backward: "The Man with the Golden Arm" (1955)

Seeing "The Man with the Golden Arm" has been on my to-do list for literally two decades. I think I first heard mention of it in one of my cinema textbooks at NYU, in the context of films that were released without a stamp of approval from the Hollywood Production Code. It went on to become a critical and box office success, garnering three Oscar nominations -- accounting for some of the first chinks to show in the impenetrable wall of the code.

Its depiction of a heroin addict was harrowing for 1955, and even more so when you think about an era when you couldn't even say the word "pregnant" on television. "Man" has explicit references to prostitution, illegal gambling, violence, police corruption and much more. Virtually every character is in some way on the take or running a scam. Its view of the modern American city is a disturbing portrait of urban decay where people prey upon each others' weaknesses.

The fact that it starred Frank Sinatra was also a pretty big deal. Here was a mainstream star, just coming off an Academy Award win for his supporting performance in "From Here to Eternity," playing a two-bit junkie who sticks needles in his arms and fools around on his wheelchair-bound wife. Of course, the script by Walter Newman, Lewis Meltzer and an uncredited, blacklisted Ben Hecht spruced things up from the novel by Nelson Algren, portraying "Frankie Machine" in a more positive light.

It's a little  unclear if that name is his real one, or simply a street moniker. He's also often referred to as simply "Dealer," since his stock and trade is dealing cards for an illicit game. Frankie doesn't simply deal the cards but plays the house's hand against the other players, bringing in big bunks for his scummy boss Schwiefka (Robert Strauss). He's the best, and the high-rollers come to play against the Machine.

Six months ago the game got busted up by the cops, and Frankie was sent to a jail to do his time and dry out. He kept his mouth shut about Schwiefka, who was supposed to send 50 bucks a month to his wife Zosch (Elanor Parker) but didn't always come through. Frankie learned to play the drums while in prison, and has an introduction for an audition with a big-time swing bad. Elmer Bernstein's Oscar-nominated score is a sweet mix of cool instrumentals and hot jazz, trumpets screeching to announce whenever a moment of high dramatic tension has arrived.

Now Schwiefka wants the Dealer to deal again. And his erstwhile partner Louie (an excellent Darren McGavin), the local dandy/drug dealer, keeps whistling in Frankie's ear about a nice fix waiting for him just across the street.

"The monkey is never dead, Dealer. The monkey never dies. When you kick him off, he just hides in a corner, waiting his turn," Louie purrs.

The angel on his other shoulder is Kim Novak as Molly, who is Frankie's once and future girlfriend, and whispers encouragement to keep on the straight and narrow. She's the sort of hard-bitten woman populating film noir; she's used to being used by men.

Director Otto Preminger goes right up to the line of actually showing the heroin being injected into Frankie's arm, depicting Louie cooking the stuff in a spoon with a lighter and drawing it into the syringe, panning away in the moment when he goes to stick it in.

The film's title has several meanings with regard to Frankie's golden arm. It refers to his skill as a card player, and also his natural rhythmic ability that makes him a perfect percussionist. But it's that same arm into which he injects heroin to escape from his troubles, if but for a little while. It's the only time he feels golden.

Sinatra reportedly visited hospitals to witness drug addicts detoxing as preparation for his role, and his performance during those scenes where the monkey is riding his back are utterly convincing. He would earn another Oscar nomination for "The Man with the Golden Arm," and deservedly so.

It's interesting to me that Sinatra went to his grave thought of mostly as a singer, but the middle portion of his career was dominated by his film work. Ol' Blue Eyes was a handsome physical specimen, known to send the "bobby soxers" swooning when he sang.

But before watching this film I had never noticed his physical deformities before -- cauliflower ear, a deep scar in the corner of his mouth, acne-pitted cheeks and a large patch of scar tissue on his neck, the result of a traumatic birth. Read this account to learn how Sinatra got his scars.

The marks have the effect of making Frankie seem like a fallen angel, someone who means to do well but keeps getting sucked into old bad habits and an environment that undermines the idea of reaching for something better.

No character better encapsulates the pitfalls of Frankie's old life than Zosch. A screeching, mentally unstable shrew, Zosch was disabled in a car accident in which Frankie was the driver at fault -- possibly while high or rattled with withdrawal shakes. He married her out of pity and vowed to care for her, but they have absolutely no relationship beyond that transaction of need.

It's later revealed that Zosch actually regained the ability to walk awhile ago, and is playing the ruse of being an invalid to garner pity and support. She violently opposes Frankie's idea of giving up dealing to play the drums in a band, since to her any change represents a betrayal of her entire existence. As long as things stay the way they are, she reasons, Frankie will always be trapped by his commitment to look after her.

She's a (non) walking guilt trip.

The film is wonderfully photographed by cinematographer Sam Leavitt, and the terrific art direction by Joseph C. Wright  and Darrell Silvera received the film's other Academy Award nod for its gritty and bleak depiction of the city's mean streets.

I also thoroughly enjoyed Arnold Stang's comedic supporting turn as Sparrow, Frankie's friend/toady, who's always there with a helping hand -- especially a thieving one -- and an obsequious remark. His side business is stealing dogs, painting their fur to disguise them and reselling them. Chinless, big-nosed, with thick glasses and a fast patter, Stang resembles Woody Allen's low-rent cousin. He enjoyed a long and busy career in radio, film and television.

After 20 years on my must-see list, "The Man with the Golden Arm" did not disappoint. The film's reputation hasn't endured like some other mid-century depictions of crime and addiction, like say "The Lost Weekend." But it's a terrific look at descent and despair, the sort of movie that can end on a sour note but still seem hopeful.

3.5 stars out of four

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