not in our stars, but in ourselves
According to cultural memory, the 1950s in America seem to have been fairly tranquil years: no more world wars, no more Depression, just peace and prosperity. That impression, however, is ever so slightly inaccurate – and you’ll soon discover that there were extraordinary neuroses bubbling under the surface, which boiled over a decade later, whether you study the history books or films from the period. One such primary source document is Otto Preminger’s The Man With the Golden Arm (1955), a drama as tense and taut as the tourniquet around star Frank Sinatra’s arm.
He plays Frankie Machine, a heroin addict who managed to kick the habit during a six-month stint in prison. He wants very much to stay clean, but he’s just about the only one: his former “boss,” Schwiefka (Robert Strauss), wants him to keep working as a card dealer in Schwiefka’s illegal card games; his former drug dealer, Louis (Darren McGavin), wants to keep him on the drug; and his wife, Zosh (Eleanor Parker), wants him to stay chained to her – and fakes paralysis to ensure that he never leaves.
The one person who wants things for, rather than from, him is Molly (Kim Novak) – a “tramp” according to Zosh. Molly and Frankie were lovers once upon a time, and they still care for each other very much. She wants to see him stay clean, and stay away from his old circle of frenemies. He tries – really he does – but everyone else around him pressures him into doing what they want, regardless of what he actually needs. He tries to stay away from heroin, but he’s pressured into using again. He tries to get himself a job as a drummer in a big band, but he’s pressured into working for Schwiefka again. He tries to be with Molly, but he’s pressured into letting Zosh continue to smother him. Poor kid.
While Sinatra thickened up over the years, here he’s exactly the right body type to play a heroin addict: small, scrawny, twitchy and sweaty. Looking the part is pretty important in a film about addiction: if Ewan McGregor hadn’t dropped 30 pounds from his hale and hearty Scottish frame for Trainspotting (1996), it wouldn’t have mattered if he’d out-acted Olivier and Brando and Barrymore and Day-Lewis and everyone else put together. You cannot be a well-fed drug addict. And Sinatra’s drawn cheeks and sunken eyes paint the right picture – as does the actual performance. He’d been on top of the world, and after a brief lull in his popularity (which was, according to those who know, pretty rough on him, particularly since his wife’s star was soaring during those years) he was rising back to the top again – where he stayed for the rest of his career. Nevertheless, there’s real desperation in every second of his screentime here – the kind that, frankly, no actor can learn. You either know what it is, or you don’t. He does (well, did, anyway). And in a grueling scene during which Frankie attempts to go cold turkey, Sinatra is terrifyingly good. He thrashes, he screams, he bashes his head against the wall. He seems to be putting his own physical well-being in real danger – which might have been a Method acting trick in someone else’s hands, but here it just seems to be his deep understanding of this character’s pain.
The two women in his life, as portrayed by Novak and Parker, are slightly more two-dimensional than Frankie. Novak is pale and lovely, with a fabulous figure and about as much acting talent in her whole body as Sinatra has in his little finger. Parker is given much more to do, and she does it well, but she’s just playing a shrew. She’s an interesting enough shrew – not comically evil, clearly struggling with real issues and mental illness – but the film doesn’t make her much more than one of many obstacles in Frankie’s way.
Those slight criticisms out of the way, The Man With the Golden Arm is entirely absorbing; in fact, it doesn’t feel at all dated. If a shot-for-shot, word-for-word remake came out tomorrow, it would still feel right. It’s a grown-up look at drug addiction and all the degradation that goes along with it: degradation of spirit, of love, of body, of hope. It’s a fascinating look under the high-gloss cover over the 1950s, as well. In addition to its unflinching treatment of the tragedy of drug addiction, it also confronts issues of sexuality and abusive relationships in a way not attempted in Hollywood since the Pre-Code era. It hasn’t been attempted all that many times since, either.