First Time Watch: The Man with the Golden Arm (1955)

man with the golden arm 1Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in April of 2010.

All I can say is, “Wow.” Unlike my previous installment of this series where I took a look at Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion, I have found that many critics have leaned towards actually downplaying Otto Preminger’s classic with the passage of time and it’s completely undeserved. Maybe it’s the subject matter that makes some folks uneasy. After all, The Man with the Golden Arm is a far cry from the ephemeral Reefer Madness (which attained a popular cult status for its outdated silliness) that many people seem to love, albeit for different reasons. Now, I’m not trying to say that Reefer Madness is anywhere near the same kind of film as Golden Arm in quality or tone, nor am I trying to make it seem like critics universally pan the movie, because that’s not the case. I just find it odd that when it comes to these old titles that deal with drug addiction, it’s seems that some individuals are almost more forgiving when it comes to the fun marijuana-menacing Reefer Madness than the stark Golden Arm. Anyway, I’ve always been a fan of films that deal with the darker side of humanity, and it occurred to me that I’ve never viewed the groundbreaking 1955 tale starring Frank Sinatra that tackles heroin addiction, so I recently sat down to do so.

What’s most interesting is that almost across the board whenever modern day reviewers discuss Golden Arm they refer to it as dated, which has to be one of the silliest arguments ever. Couldn’t one argue that any movie made in the 1950s is dated? It’s a somewhat needless and pointless view. I would hope that anyone watching a film made more than half a century ago would take the era into consideration. Believe me, I understand what folks are trying to say about the supposed oversimplification of the material, especially when taking the hardcore drug movies of today into consideration, but I actually feel that Preminger’s bold project holds up amazingly well, and the Oscar-nominated performance from Ol’ Blue Eyes is incredible.

The film opens (after Saul Bass’ trendsetting titles) with Sinatra returning to his hometown after a stint in drug rehab where he proceeds to tell those close to him that he has kicked his heroin habit, or “monkey.” As I’ve alluded to previously, simply broaching this issue on film was unheard of at the time, making Golden Arm the first release of its kind to mess around with serious narcotics addiction. In fact, the MPAA refused to certify the movie upon its release, after learning that it wasn’t quite in tune with the infamous Hollywood Production Code. Kudos to Preminger for ignoring such nonsense and even daring to lens such an adaptation of Nelson Algren’s novel, which many considered not filmable in the first place for exactly those reasons. (After all, why would Hollywood authorities want anyone to actually make an interesting movie? But, I digress with my sarcasm). Consequently, the movie marked the beginning of major changes in the ridiculous code to allow for more freedom in artistic expression. It’s these kinds of audacious maneuvers that make the art form of filmmaking worthwhile to me, and I can’t possible heap enough praise on this entertaining and worthwhile film for pondering this taboo topic, but that’s merely the start.

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OK, so after Sinatra gets back into town he becomes determined to land a job as a drummer in a jazz band. However, outside influences soon conspire to prevent this from happening. This is where matters really begin to get absorbing. Considering all the drug education of the modern era available to even the layperson, it becomes really engaging to see the angle that the movie takes on addiction. Any former addict or drug counselor will say that in order to beat a drug addiction outside the confines of a rehab center a person needs to completely change their life and routine, especially when one is wallowing in the underbelly of society as Sinatra is. Sinatra’s character doesn’t heed this advice and that’s the beginning of his downfall. Watching this plot device for the first time in 2010, it’s amazing to see how smart the movie is, taking into account that it was made in 1955 and people’s heroin habits most likely weren’t discussed openly. Furthermore, the film also brilliantly explores the issue of co-dependency. One of the problems that complicates Sinatra’s plight is that he must deal with his wife (Eleanor Parker) who’s “confined” to a wheelchair due to Sinatra’s actions while he was high. Parker’s true motivation in the film illustrates that sometimes people can get so wrapped up in each other’s sickness that it actually winds up contributing to the problems of both parties and brings them down further. This becomes a key in the resolution of the story.

man with the golden arm 3The performances are pretty fantastic all the way around. I thought that Parker was a bit over-the-top, but again, that’s indicative of the era so it’s not a big problem. I read one review that dared to call Kim Novak’s turn as Sinatra’s mistress who helps him out, flat. I couldn’t disagree more. Maybe some could be confused by Novak, as she’s more of a straight woman, being the only character that isn’t completely immersed in a seamy lifestyle. However, I found her to be properly restrained and effective. Additionally, Darren McGavin is superb as the slimy drug dealer who not only gets Sinatra hooked again, but lures him back into his old job as the talented poker dealer in the illegal racket run by Robert Strauss, ensuring that Sinatra will spiral out of control. Folks used to watching McGavin every year as the father in A Christmas Story are in for a treat. Arnold Stang is also solid as Sinatra’s nerdy, dog-loving hustler pal, who himself follows Frank around like a puppy. I should also add that Elmer Bernstein’s Oscar-nominated jazz score is downright infectious.

Perhaps my only problem with the film is that the ending may be a little too convenient. However, upon further inspection, it works on at least one level. It’s certain that addicts can’t conquer their condition all by themselves, so once Sinatra finds what (or more specifically, who) he needs, viewers can have confidence that he’ll continue to travel down a positive path. This only serves as more proof that The Man with the Golden Arm was well ahead of its time. I’ll give it four stars out of five.