#287. The Man with the Golden Arm (1955)

Here’s another one of those movies that suggests and reflects a loosening of censorship because it’s a very frank (or kinda very frank) portrait of a recovering and then relapsing heroin addict, played with remarkable dedication by Frank Sinatra. I didn’t think Sinatra was an obvious winner for Best Supporting Actor with his work in From Here to Eternity (in fact, I’m kinda puzzled by it), but I do kinda feel like he got shafted when, for his work in Man with a Golden Arm, he was nominated for Best Actor, a step up, and lost it to Ernest Borgnine’s performance in Marty (which, granted, is a subtler and less theatric performance, but…ahdunno; I’d’ve liked for Frank to get it).

            Sinatra plays Frankie Machine, a guy who’s fresh out of prison and newly sober, and he’s returning to the tenement where he clearly kinda fucked his life up, where drugs were available and where we’re told he made his life as a “dealer,” that he was such a great “dealer,” which, given the movie’s subject, would suggest he’s slinging drugs but, no, he’s a card dealer. Dependable, friendly, discreet. Prestidigitous (need to leap at every opportunity to use that word).

            He deals for mobster-types at these days-long poker marathons that are so serious, so grueling, they seem like the sorta thing you’d see in Winchester 73 or My Darling Clementine or Ox-Bow Incident: no question of law enforcement, or of breaking up the game so people can go to work. It’s life or death. The chumminess of the encounter is a thin veneer over the enormous stakes. The vibe of them is that one or more of these guys at the table is going to stake, and lose, more than he can afford to.

            Anyway, look: one of the first movies on the List to really upset me was The Lost Weekend, a portrait of crushing alcoholism and how one particularly awful bender seems to both shorten and drag out the hours. Something I don’t like to admit I’m familiar with. It made me confront things about my own behavior in particularly dark times and it just…kinda challenged me.

Man with the Golden Arm doesn’t do that, cuz Sinatra’s heroin addiction here is far from anything I’ve ever experienced; but the film does appear to be very conscious of Lost Weekend as a precursor, an influence, and I don’t think it’s a leap to say that this movie, directed by Otto Preminger (veteran to the List for his work on Laura and Carmen Jones), is trying to create, for the 1950s, what Lost Weekend was for the ‘40s: a line in the sand. A serious document that says, This is the long stride we’re taking toward a new kind of creative truth.

            Because without being overtly sexual or violent or whatever, The Lost Weekend was so crushingly bleak that it felt like a challenge to cinema’s studio-enforced optimism. It’s easy to see how somebody who’d been raised on Hollywood cinema might have gone to a movie like Lost Weekend and felt almost scandalized by its bleakness, its honesty.

            Preminger also graces the movie with a gorgeous, galvanizing, skibbedybop jazzfuck soundtrack from Elmer Bernstein that feels like cool innocent barroom music at first but then, progressively, starts to feel like the instruments are themselves strung out, hyperventilating, mirroring the story’s measured chaos, the character’s unraveling. The chaos of the movie, like the ostensibly chaos in jazz, is actually the coordinated machinations of Zosh (Eleanor Parker), Frankie’s wife who’s manipulating him into thinking she’s a paraplegic, and his drug dealer/”friend” who’s tryna get Frankie back on the needle.

            The movie feels like a statement about more than just its subject (the heroin addiction that, as I understand it, really did flourish in America after World War II, same as it did after Vietnam). The movie also seems like a challenge to the medium’s gatekeepers.

            Here’s a beloved popular figure giving a visceral (and kinda homoerotic) depiction of one of the most hush-hush issues of the time.

            Beautiful stuff.

            Preminger also employs this neat trick f having the camera, at certain times, hang back and stalk Sinatra through the set—almost like the ghost of his addiction. Always just barely outside the scene. Moving in closer.

            I really dig this movie—and it’s in the public domain so you can catch it for free.


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