The Man With The Golden Arm
Director: Otto Preminger / Screenplay: Walter Newman & Lewis Meltzer (from novel by Nelson Algren) / Editing: Louis R. Loeffler / DP: Sam Leavitt / Music: Elmer Bernstein
Cast: Frank Sinatra / Eleanor Parker / Kim Novak / Arnold Stang / Darren McGavin / Robert Strauss / John Conte / Doro Merande / George E. Stone / George Matthews / Emile Meyer
After Frankie Got to Hollywood…
Otto Preminger was making a name for himself, as a theatrical director in pre-war Vienna, when the dynamic duo behind 20th Century Fox: Darryl F. Zanuck & Joseph Schenck came calling as part of a recruitment drive to attract fresh, European talent to Hollywood. Preminger wasn’t the only one offered the chance to make something other than mere pictures: Money…
Needless to say he jumped at the chance, although Preminger’s early relationship with the spiky Zanuck foundered in less than two years. He moved back East but, instead of returning to an Austria now-annexed by Hitler, he ended his homeward trek at New York. It was there, that he found lucrative work directing on Broadway.
World War Two arrived and with Zanuck away making promotional shorts & newsreels for the folks back-home, Fox was now under the temporary stewardship of William Goetz; by all accounts, a much more genial character than Zanuck and a character who recognised talent when he saw it: which is how Preminger came back to the fold. After one or two morale-boosting B-movies, which he completed on-time & to-budget, Preminger weathered a test of nerve in casting his preferred choice (Clifton Webb) for the well-received Laura (1944). This picture started Preminger on a path down which he’d make his fame – and fortune – in Hollywood: even if it meant a switch to United Artists after Zanuck returned…
Since their inception in 1930, until its abolition in 1968, Hollywood productions had had to conform to a set of moral guidelines, self-imposed by its professional body, The Motion Picture Association of America (‘MPAA’). Commonly known as the ‘Hays Code’ after MPAA President Will Hays, the original intention was to comply with the demands of various pressure groups across the ‘States, both religious & moral, who viewed ‘the movies’ with suspicion. The Great Depression had brought a whole raft of problems in its wake, beyond a trifling collapse of the American economy. With unlicensed drinking and criminals now celebrated as folk-heroes (i.e. Al Capone, Bonnie & Clyde), the cohesiveness of the entire Republic was under threat. Increasingly, the popular mood was that ‘Something Had To Be Done’.
As ‘Prohibition’ sought to stamp-out public intoxication (with the result of driving it underground), so the MPAA decided it was in their interest to reduce on-screen violence, epitomised by a run of films produced largely by Warner Bros. and starring figures such as Jimmy Cagney. As time passed, the Hays Code became more strictly policed, with coverage of ‘racy language’ and ‘over-enthusiastic’ romantic scenes also discouraged. For example, two people could be seen sharing a double bed, but at least one of them had to have a foot on the floor…
Inevitably, the end of the war was to usher-in overdue change. A generation of young men (and many women) were now returning home, changed forever by what they’d seen & experienced and the MPAA came under-pressure to relax its code, so that movies might better reflect this new reality. The advent of television was another force to contend with: for Hollywood to thrive, if not prosper, it needed to change and directors such as Preminger were well-placed to deliver.
His post-war choices were a canny mix of projects, that combined an undoubted popular taste (honed by his stage experiences) with a desire to confront his audiences with themes long-denied them, thanks to Hays. By the time he got to The Man With the Golden Arm, Preminger had already tackled Religion, Nationalism & Criminal Justice; each picture wriggling its way to release, from under the censor’s nose. Such deft handling of inflammatory topics, that lesser directors might’ve shied away from, left Preminger in a strong position. In-turn, he was able to attract top-drawer names to his pictures, as they gave stars & behind-the-camera talent alike, opportunities to expand their range.
Billy Wilder had already covered alcoholism with the indelible The Lost Weekend (1945), so it seems only right that the subject of drug addiction should fall to Preminger, a full-decade later; hey, Rome wasn’t built in a day, though can you IMAGINE the hand-wringing, had ‘Golden Arm followed ‘Weekend into theatres?
By 1955, things were changing. Elvis was on the cusp of immortality. Sputnik 1 was being planned by the USSR and Ray Kroc opened his first McDonalds. Of course Preminger would make ‘Golden Arm. By this time, his contract with UA stipulated that, should one of his films violate Hays, they had the right to withdraw it from distribution, so close was he sailing to the wind with each successive project. We’ll return to that, later.
It helped, that first on-board, to play the lead, was none-other than Frank Sinatra…
Two years-in to his career-reviving contract with Capitol Records, Sinatra was working hard to revive a career that’d seen a dramatic slump as the Fifties dawned. The ‘Sinatra-mania’ that’d come to define American popular music during – and immediately after – the war, was coming to an end, as new musical trends e.g. Rock-‘n-Roll caught the popular mood and left ‘the Crooners’ behind. As he struggled to find a new direction, Sinatra was keen to maintain his public profile and appearing in movies, had turned-out to be a credible move, maintaining a connection to his legions of ‘BobbySoxer’ fans. Coming off a stretch of films dominated by musicals, ‘Golden Arm, with its edgy themes, would prove a tonic, helping to steer that fanbase in a more adult direction. Indeed, so keen was Sinatra, that he signed-on to the project before the full script had been written…
Originally a novel by Nelson Algren, ‘Golden Arm was adapted by Newman & Meltzer, after Algren – who was up for writing the adaptation himself – had a falling-out with Preminger. An extensive street-set was built on a soundstage at RKO studios, with various ‘knock-throughs’ between the key interiors, such as the bar and the street beyond, allowing Preminger to move his camera in seamless tracking shots; his DP, Sam Leavitt, was to pull-off some masterful tricks on this picture.
After some stylish, semi-abstract titles from Saul Bass, the master of the form, and all accompanied by a strident, horn-drenched, swing-anthem from Bernstein, we get into it as the obliquely-named Frankie Machine (Sinatra) gets off a bus, carrying a couple of unwieldy drum cases. We’re on a familiar street here, where even the good-time gals know his name. He passes a wary cop and a pawn shop, before stopping to peer through the window of a bar. Inside, a one-armed ruin of a man is being told to dance for a shot of whisky, but such ritual humiliation brings only a smile to Frankie’s face: he’s home.
The first person he meets inside, is Sparrow; Arnold Stang in a memorable turn as Frankie’s most loyal friend and someone who acts as the eyes & ears of the street; in Sparrow, you get the sense of someone who’s lived out here all his life and knows everything that’s worth knowing. As if to underline Sparrow’s weasly credentials, when first we see him, he’s grooming what looks to be a Schnauzer dog, that he’s evidently stolen to-order. He’ll sell it to you, too: for a price…
As the other patrons realise Frankie’s back among them, there’s a flurry of questions, mostly placing hedged-bets about his ‘health’: ‘In jail?’ asks one, to which Frankie replies: ‘More of a hospital, really.’ This expands to Frankie professing to anyone who’ll listen, even his old drug dealer, that ‘the monkey’s gone’.
That’d be Louie – and he’s heard it all before. Darren McGavin plays him with a suave, knowing poise, as a man who knows full-well, that a ‘junky’s for life, not just for Christmas’. He’s happy to wait, for he’s the Devil in this picture and McGavin’s happy to play along.
And wait he must, for Frankie’s got a new purpose in his life: it seems prison unlocked a talent for drumming. So much so, that his Doctor ‘on the inside’ organised a whip-round and bought him a basic set-up with which to practice and, thus, make some better moves in his life-story.
It’s telling however, that Frankie should visit the bar before his wife... Unable to put it off forever, he crosses the street to their dingy bedsit on the top floor of a redbrick tenement.
Zosh is her name and she’s wheelchair-bound, following a car accident three years earlier. Eleanor Parker invests in this character, imbuing her with a smothering affection that overwhelms poor Frankie, who even struggles to make eye contact with this manipulative, draining woman. It’s funny, but as I watched Parker here, I saw flashes of the role that would come along a decade later and cement her fame forever: as the brittle, ‘wicked’ stepmother-to-be in The Sound of Music (1965). Wow. You wait for over a hundred reviews to get a mention for The Sound of Music and now you get TWO in succession…
And look, Frankie: a friendly neighbour, Vi (Doro Merande) has produced a cake with a solitary candle and, as a break from her endless scrapbooking, Zosh has made a sign reading ‘Wellcome Home’ (sic). But Frankie’s all-business. All-action. He hasn’t got the energy to even go through the motions with her. Their first meeting in six months and all he wants, is Zosh’s acknowledgement, nay, encouragement of this new direction. When all he gets in-return, is a demand to eat some of the cake, he flees downstairs to the communal ‘phone, to make an appointment with a manager of ‘Big Bands’; a contact of his ‘doc’s.
It’s while he’s hanging on the ‘phone, that he meets Molly (Kim Novak). To my shame, the only thing I’d seen Novak in prior to this, was Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), but she sizzles here as the one-who-got-away. She’s being hustled out of the door by a limp-rag of a slime-ball called Johnny (John Conte); a new face to Frankie, that Molly explains thus: ‘With you away, what else is a girl to do?’ It’s great seeing Frankie torn between talking to his Past and talking to his Future: here’s a man who can’t decide which is more important…
Someone else who’s conflicted is Zosh, who now walks to her window, having remembered to lock her door. It’s clear why: she’s been lying to keep Frankie close and away from the Femme Fatale downstairs. Such a brave choice by Preminger & the writers to reveal this so early, as it alters our reading of what follows. Now, we feel a degree of sympathy for Frankie, who’s evidently remained loyal to this emotional blackmailer, out of misplaced honour.
found stolen a new suit for Frankie’s audition and after going down to the bar to celebrate (anywhere but home with Zosh), our hero runs into Schwiefka, a local small-time boss of an illicit card game, in the form of Robert Strauss. It seems as though Frankie’s nickname – ‘Dealer’ – was earned running Schwiefka’s table: a position that earned him another title: ‘Golden Arm’ on account of his prowess at dealing in the House’s favour. Schwiefka’s unimpressed to hear that his Golden Arm intends on getting ‘into the music business’ and going straight. Before leaving, abruptly, he also notices the new suit…
Preminger & Leavitt now pull the first magic trick of their own, as we track Frankie & Sparrow outside and straight into the back of a perfectly-timed police car, picking them up for stealing – and receiving – the suit. Yes, we spot a fire-hydrant glide mysteriously out-of-frame, but otherwise it’s an elegantly built sequence to have pulled-off with a camera as unwieldy as a VW Beetle…
Despite repeated assurances from Frankie (or ‘Dealer’ as the Detective insists on calling him; old habits, and all that), that he needs the threads for his upcoming audition, he and Sparrow are thrown-in the drunk-tank to mull things over. Schwiefka duly appears to pay the fine; the least he can do, given he put them there in the first place… And the price? That Frankie return to The Game. Again, old habits die hard.
Even here, I sense a doomy, inevitable momentum in the script. Frankie knows full-well, that his acceptance marks a return to a self-destructive pattern, but he can’t see an alternative. He’s an addict in a seedy world where everyone’s addicted to something. Louie was hooked on sweets. Zosh is addicted to Frankie (though we can only guess her previous vice). Schwiefka and all the sad sacks we’ll later see at his Game, are either compulsive gamblers or watchers of gambling. Either way, such is their commitment, they’re prepared to play – or stare – for two days straight, rather than tap-out… About the only one free of any vice around here, is Molly, though how she makes her money is never explained, leaving us free to guess, at the hours she puts-in over at Club Safari… In one touching scene, Frankie shares with Molly, his dream of making it as a musician, but he’s dispirited because the promised ‘phone call hasn’t come. Molly urges him to call back, suggesting that his contact, Mr Laing, might’ve lost his number… Lacking self-confidence to take the initiative, Frankie’s persuaded to call him and, whaddya know?? A meeting’s arranged.
Laing’s willing to send Frankie out to an audition, but he lays it out: that too many of those referred to him by the clinic ‘prove weak’ and prone to relapsing. They’ve let him down in the past and, as a result, he no longer offers second chances: ‘Even when they’re back and pleading on their knees!’ This is enough pressure to send Frankie into Louie’s patient clutches; one Dealer for another. Naturally, this ‘one last fix’ is merely a resumption of the Status Quo, as Frankie slides back harder than ever; his fall given dramatic weight, by composer Bernstein, who’s menacing score blasts a stab of urgent strings with every piece of the paraphernalia Louie lays-out on the dresser; so quaint & genteel compared to the truly squalid imagery we’ve seen since: remember the toilet scene from Trainspotting (1996)?
Remember too, that Preminger was still labouring under the Hays Code for this picture and care had to be taken to ensure it passed scrutiny: for example, while we assume he’s taking Heroin, the drug’s never actually named in the entire picture, leading to it being treated as a ‘catch-all’ shorthand for DRUGS. This, in a sensitive America, still reeling from Reefer Madness (1936) (tagline: ‘Women cry for it, men die for it!’). Madness, indeed.
The Third Act sees a tying-off of loose-ends, as Louie’s killed in mysterious circumstances; the cop’s first suspect is Frankie, natch, but he’s at Molly’s new place going ‘cold-turkey’ with her support and here’s where Sinatra really gets into gear for me. To this point, he’s been crisp & dry with all the low-life that surround him (including Zosh) but, while he can undoubtedly act (better than Presley ever could), he hasn’t done enough to convince me that he warranted top-billing on talent alone. Yet, watching him shake, rattle & roll with no-one to comfort him but the divine Ms. Novak, Sinatra won me over. Wikipedia tells me that he visited a drug-rehab centre prior to filming, to see for himself what it’s like to experience such hard-withdrawal and watching him here, I can believe it. And him. His performance is nothing less than compelling: but it took a while for me to warm to him.
When the cops finally catch-up with Frankie, they’re so persuaded by Molly’s alibi, they take him back to Zosh, who’s own secret is finally revealed; no-one looks as speechless as Zosh herself, as her bubble bursts in spectacular, public fashion.
It’s been quite a ride in the company of these low-lifes, but the party’s now over. Frankie knows it, too. He’s walking to-camera, along with Molly and, literarily putting it all behind him. At last, he’s clean & sober enough to see it all, for what it really is. A few days ago, he was stepping-off the bus and sliding back into the groove he’d once known, because that’s what he believed he needed. He thought he could get on his feet, whilst surrounded by friends with dirty faces, without being willing – or able – to see that he was a product of the same desperation and that, sooner or later, those same streets would swallow him whole. Little wonder Sinatra got himself nominated for an Oscar on the strength of this showing: now THAT’S career rehabilitation…
In this town, everyone’s got an angle. A scam. A ruse. There are no chickens, only foxes. Even when Frankie produces a ‘doctor’ to treat Zosh’s ‘damaged spine’, he turns-out to be little more than a quack, possessed of a meaningless certificate and matching appliance (impressive though its flashing lights might’ve been, they ain’t going to get Zosh out of her chair: only inflamed, passionate guilt can do that). No wonder Frankie has his first-but-last fix straight after: anything to dull the realisation that he’s been played again.
Problems? Just one, worthy of note: I can’t be alone in realising that this is a distinctly white neighbourhood… Can I? I know times were different back in ‘55, but were they so different that film-makers couldn’t show mixed-race communities rubbing-along nicely, even on-film? Perhaps. Perhaps, not. Either way, I reckon this WAS a conscious decision by Preminger, taken as a way of further mitigating risk. When his picture was likely to inflame anger from one corner of society, it made no sense to go all-in and likely scupper its prospects for good!
That’s why, in Algren’s novel, Frankie ends-up killing himself: he realises he’s a chicken at the mercy of the foxes that surround him. Preminger & UA realised that such a bleak ending wouldn’t play (especially if it meant their star’s value was tarnished by-association). Besides, I LIKE the redemptive arc to Frankie’s character in their version. He’s done enough, to walk out alive, in the arms of the neighbourhood’s other chicken…
Preminger knew he’d done enough, in the end and finished the picture before the MPAA could review it. The result? A $25k fine and denial of certification. However, instead of UA taking action against Preminger as-per-contract, they chose instead to appeal against the MPAA, citing the film ‘had immense potential for public service’. Unmoved, the MPAA held its ground, despite one or two influential cinema chains pre-booking the film un-certificated. United Artists then withdrew from the MPAA for a number of years, leaving the organisation’s credibility on rockier ground. As a result, the MPAA was forced to examine Hays’ stringency, finally issuing a Certificate for the film in 1961; a move that allowed it to be shown on TV; a watershed moment in American cinema, made possible by Preminger’s bold stand and the support of, perhaps, the only studio with the credibility & clout (at least then) to stand by its Director: United Artists, indeed.
For a brief moment, it seemed as if Content really was King. Hays was abandoned in 1968. Wreathed in its own fragrant haze, Easy Rider wheeled into town in ‘69. Preminger had wedged-open the gate just enough, to let the Barbarians see the Undiscovered Country beyond.
Hollywood – and Cinema – would be forever changed. There was no going back.
The monkey’s never dead, Dealer. The monkey never dies. When you kick him off, he just hides in a corner. Waiting his turn.