Genre: Drama, Romance
Directed by: Otto Preminger
Starring: Frank Sinatra, Kim Novak, Eleanor Parker
As a strung-out junkie trying to kick his drug habit, Frank Sinatra arguably gave the best performance of his cinematic career in Otto Preminger’s The Man With The Golden Arm, which this week enjoys a HiDef restoration on Blu-ray.
Sinatra plays Frankie, a skilled card dealer who has just returned home following a short stint in prison for possession of heroine. Having cleaned up his act whilst behind bars, Frankie dreams of turning his back on the lucrative gambling business and, with the help of his friend Molly (a quietly heart-breaking Kim Novak), find success as a jazz drummer. But the pressure to provide for his crippled wife Zosch (Eleanor Parker), and the constant threat of failure soon lead Frankie back to the door of his former dope pusher Louie (Darren McGavin).
Originally released back in 1955, The Man With The Golden Arm was one of the most controversially significant films of its era. No film before it had ever dealt with the issue of drug abuse so openly, and as a direct result of its contentious subject matter, the Motion Picture Association of America refused to certify the film. But the film was released anyway and went on to become a commercial success, which in turn helped spark a change in the production codes that allowed movies more freedom to tackle such taboo topics.
Preminger’s approach is certainly confronting. Saul Bass’ striking title sequence startles; its juxtaposition with Elmer Bernstein’s driving score crafting a troubling, threatening mood that envelops the film like a thick, hazy fog. The risk of a relapse is there from the moment we first see Frankie, it lurks, out of sight but never out of mind, like a predator waiting to pounce.
The Man With The Golden Arm is undoubtedly distressing, but it has also dated quite considerably. Though it was groundbreaking for its time, the obvious use of studio sets and the inclusion of distracting noir elements within the plot cause the film to come across as quite tame by today’s standards. And those looking for a truly raw and clinical study of addiction may find themselves better served by the likes of Panic In Needle Park or Aronofsky’s Requiem For A Dream.
Nothing, however, can detract from the power of Sinatra’s screen presence. His is a carefully measured manifestation of a troubled mind that’s as haunting as it is horrifying. Indeed, the only thing more tragic than the performance itself is that it failed to win Sinatra the Lead Actor Oscar he deserved.