|OpenFlix > Man With the Golden Arm, The|
The best sequences in the movie involve Sinatra in the realm of men (and I mean Men as opposed to human) - when dealing the several day long card game while still trying to keep focused on the important audition Monday morning, the interchanges with the appealingly slimy heroin dealer (greasily played by Darrin McGavin in one of his best roles) while succumbing to the pull of the junkie, the failed musical audition, and the outstanding bit when he resolves to kick the habit cold-turkey. All of these were worth watching several times - thank God for chapter selections on DVD.
However, the movie is not perfect, and there are several things that can be readily cited as significant faults. The possessive and yet still possessed wife (Eleanor Parker) was a one-note performance: hysteria. Preminger needed to significantly pull back that character from the precipice that she fell off (long before she literally falls off). The first scene with her and Frankie upon his return home is the only one that was interesting and believable, all others were maudlin and overdone. She clearly had the acting chops to turn in a fascinating performance, as indicated by this first scene. Her character should have been one of the most pivotal in the movie, as she is the reason why Frankie returns and she inadvertently provides the key to his freedom when she gives herself up after killing the heroin dealer. As it is, scenes with her in it are mostly unwatchable.
The sycophantic toady friend of Frankie (Arnold Stang) was, I suppose, intended to be funny, but he is such an undeveloped stereotype as to be merely annoying. He greatly hindered my enjoyment of the movie.
Also the pacing at times really dragged at several points, most notably even during the great sequence with Sinatra kicking the habit. The rather long running time (119 minutes) could have been easily shortened by at least 20 minutes with some simple editing and tightening. Similarly, although the musical score was interesting and compelling - it tied in with Frankie's newly resolved ambition and nicely placed the movie among the heroin junkie jazz lifestyle of the time - it could have been much better utilized. One refrain in particular that recurs so often as to be annoying and at such a loud volume as to be distracting. It is a perfect example of how great music can be diminished by misapplication.
That all being said, these detractions do not so significantly reduce the movie that I would not heartily recommend it to my friends. Dated and imperfect it may be, but it is still compelling and immensely watchable - and not just for Sinatra nuts like myself.
Frankie's problem is that he wants to return to normalcy after being released from prison, and then a halfway house. Like the novelist says, "you write what you know," and likewise Frankie lives what he knows, and returns to his seedy Chicago neighborhood. From the moment of his uneventful return, normalcy -- his old life as a card dealer, his neurotic wife (Eleanor Parker) who feels too sorry for herself to help Frankie start clean with a new life, and a small-time heroin dealer, icily played by Darren McGavin -- tries to reel Frankie back into a dead-end routine and sink its hooks to keep him enslaved to his compulsions.
Frankie tries to embark on a new career as a jazz drummer, which provides the movie with the motifs for its streetwise "crime jazz" soundtrack, written by Elmer Bernstein. But, the cycle of addiction sets in lightning-quick because Frankie's wife wants him to bring home the money dealing cards again, which puts him smack dab in the company of the lowlifes he most desparately needs to avoid. Back at dealing, the local heroin dealer could not give a whit about Frankie staying clean; He's desparate to get Frankie to take that one fix and hook another regular customer.
Fortunately, Frankie finds salvation in the arms of Kim Novak, who was involved with Sinatra romantically at the time. Their relationship is a complex one, and Novak's empathy really comes through. Her hard-headed compassion in keeping Frankie away from a fix while he's sweating it out cold-turkey is riveting, because she's putting her own safety at risk. Even before modern theraputic terms like "in denial" were in vogue, we see Sinatra's character -- in the throes of his own addiction -- running down Novak's alcoholic boyfriend as a weakling who can't control his vices. It's beautifully handled, because the point is not to expose Frankie as a hypocrite, but to reveal his blindness to his own weaknesses. Frankie is a tragic hero of Shakesperian dimensions, but whose stage is set in a modern-day tenement.
Visually, this film is very striking, and is edited so that the montage is in rapid-fire sequence during crucial scenes. It's intercut in the same fashion as Saul Bass' pioneering title cutouts; Bass would go on to become Hollywood's most recognizable title designer, his sequences dominated by iconic graphics in movies such as Preminger's "Anatomy of a Murder," "Advise and Consent" and Hitchcock's "Vertigo" and "Psycho."
Of all Preminger's movies, this is the most cinematic. He would go on to use more laid-back camera setups and editing in movies like the one named above, and would break out into less intimate and more worldly settings with epics such as "The Cardinal" and "In Harm's Way."
"The Man With the Golden Arm" catches Preminger at the top of his form as it does his cast. McGavin would never again be so intense, and only in "The Manchurian Candidate" for Sinatra and "Vertigo" for Novak would such powerful, commited and well-written performances again come their way.
When Frankie Machine (Frank Sinatra) comes back to the old neighborhood after a spell in the big house, he wants to stay straight and become a drummer. But his old life--as a poker dealer and heroin addict--comes rushing back to meet him. The subject matter of Nelson Algren's novel was still shocking in 1955, andThe Man with the Golden Arm was released without the seal of approval from Hollywood's Production Code. The director, Otto Preminger, used the controversy to whip up interest in the film, and his championing of non-Code pictures such asThe Moon Is Blue andThe Man with the Golden Arm helped end the influence of the restrictive policy. For Frank Sinatra, the role was a high point; his performance is searching, honest, and (in long scenes of going cold turkey to kick the habit) frighteningly naked. He's touchingly matched with Kim Novak, in one of her best performances; adding a bit of method-acting madness is Eleanor Parker as Frankie's hysterical wife. Sinatra was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar, but lost to Ernest Borgnine--the same guy who beat him senseless inFrom Here to Eternity. The propulsive jazz score is by Elmer Bernstein. Even the credits sequence staked out new territory: the mod images created by Saul Bass were among his first in a long-standing collaboration with Preminger, and were highly influential on other designers.--Robert Horton
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