Friday, November 3, 2017

The Man With The Golden Arm (1956) Junkie Noir

Originally it was going to be a John Garfield film. He acquired the rights in 1949 to the novel but couldn't get approval from the MPPC. Garfield died in 1952 the film was bought from his estate by director Otto Preminger. Preminger set up his own company to handle distribution.

This film has a strange look. It's a throwback to the 1940s. It's shot completely on the RKO lot and looks it. Perhaps it was to cut down on costs. You get the same overall feeling when watching 1982's Hammett (a alcoholic's dream-like San Francisco). The studio set gives the film a off look, a throwback look, a cheap look, it reminded me of a typical TV teleplay, especially since quite a few noir by 1956 were opening up, were using imaginative on location work. It's supposed to be Chicago but it oozes backlot. This detracts a bit from it's effectiveness. Using real ghetto Chicago neighborhoods as Call Northside 777 (1948) did, greatly enhanced its realism and grittiness.  As is you are watching an uninteresting film, visually unexciting, just one step up from a filmed stage play.

Frankie (Frank Sinatra)

faux Chicago

Club Safari and Molly-O (Kim NovaK)
The novel, by Nelson Algren, was substantially changed in the screenplay. Instead of Frankie Machine (Frank Sinatra) being hooked on morphine from a WWII wound, in the film he is a heroin junkie. The film starts with Frankie's return from the prison hospital. He was sent up for dealing for a pusher named Louie (Darren McGavin). Frankies other "job" was dealing cards for an illegal poker game run by Louie & dive bar owner Schwiefka (Robert Strauss).

Sparrow (Arnold Strang) and Frankie

Frankie and Louie (Darren McGavin)

Sparrow, Frankie, and Schwiefka (Robert Strauss)

Zosh (Eleanor Parker)
Getting off the bus carrying a drum, Frankie passes Schwiefka's bar and looks in the window. Louie is tormenting a one armed alkie floor sweeper with a glass of booze. Louie makes him dance. Frankie runs into his friend, the beak nosed Sparrow (Arnold Strang). Sparrow's racket is stealing dogs, then turning them back to the owners for a reward. While catching up, Frankie tells Sparrow about a drum gig he's going to audition for.

Leaving the bar Frankie schleps down the street to his apartment house and his wheelchair bound shrewish wife Zosh (Eleanor Parker). She is pushy, overly possessive, and a conniver, the Femme Fatale of the piece. Frankie tells her that he's clean. He's got the monkey off his back. In the hospital he learned that if he keeps busy, keeps practicing his drumming, he won't be tempted to geeze. But, when he sets up the drum to practice Zosh either keeps interrupting, or tells him the pounding gives her a headache. It takes about five minutes of nagging to push Frankie off the rails. He heads out the door looking for Louie and the needle.

Detective Bednar rt., (Emile Meyer)
Frankie needing an outlet turns to an old flame Molly O (Kim Novak), who works as a hostess at a strip joint, and asks her if he can set up his drum at her flop. She agrees but all the pressure from Zosh and Louie have Frankie hooked again. Dealing cards in a two day long poker game for Louie and Schwiefka results in a beat Frankie muffing his big band audition.

When Louie looking for Frankie walks into the apartment he discovers that Zosh can walk and has been faking her disability to make Frankie feel guilty. Zosh in a panic pushes him off the stairway landing and he falls a couple of stories to his death. When the police arrive they suspect Frankie had a fight with his pusher, and Zosh lets them believe so. It all goes Noirsville.


Initially the film was denied a Code seal, but Loews theater chain and others refused to ban the film, especially with the declining theater attendance due to TV. Theaters needed something that you could not get on TV.  Taboo subjects i.e., drug abuse, kidnapping, miscegenation, abortion, prostitution, and eventually nudity were allowed with the decline of MPAA enforcement. However the film looks remarkably tame almost a quaint curiosity piece, by today's standards.

Both Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando were given the script for the part of Frankie.  Sinatra researched the part spending time at rehab clinic watching geezers going cold turkey. He also learned to play drums. If he got the part through mob connections I wouldn't be surprised. The rest of the cast are good, Eleanor Parker (Caged (1950), Detective Story (1951), Darren McGavin (The Case Against Brooklyn (1958), Mike Hammer  TV Series (1958–1959)), Kim Novak (Pushover (1954), 5 Against the House (1955), Vertigo (1958)), Robert Strauss (Stalag 17 (1953)), I Mobster (1959), Emile Meyer (Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954), Shield for Murder (1954), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), The Lineup (1958)),  Arnold Stang and Doro Merande vie for the biggest schnozzola in the film, they have a scene together that resembles two toucans having a sword fight.

The Man With The Golden Arm was nominated for three Academy Awards: Sinatra for Best Actor in a Leading Role, for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White and for Best Music (Elmer Bernstein). Sinatra garnered best actor awards by the BAFTAs and The New York Film Critics. 7/10

The much Noir-er storyline of the novel:

(From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

Often referring to his drug habit as the "thirty-five-pound monkey on his back", Frankie initially tries to keep Sparrow and the others in the dark about it. He sends Sparrow away whenever he visits "Nifty Louie" Fomorowski, his supplier. One night, while fighting in a back stairwell, Frankie inadvertently kills Nifty Louie. He and Sparrow attempt to cover up his role in the murder.

Nifty Louie owed money to politically connected men, and finding his killer becomes a priority for the police department. Sparrow is held for questioning by the police, and he is moved from station to station to circumvent Habeas corpus requirements. Eventually he breaks down and reveals what he knows, and Frankie is forced to flee. 

While on the run, Frankie manages to find Molly at a strip club near Lake Street. He hides in her apartment and beats his addiction, but in the end the authorities learn where he is hiding. He barely manages to escape and gets shot in the foot, leaving Molly behind. He flees to a flophouse, but without any hope of reuniting with Molly or staying free, he hangs himself in his room on April Fools' Day, 1948.

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