The Man with the Golden Arm (1955)

 

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Rating: The Good – 74.4
Genre: Drama
Duration: 102 mins
Director: Otto Preminger
Stars: Frank Sinatra, Kim Novak, Eleanor Parker

Director Otto Preminger and star Frank Sinatra play to both their strengths in this ahead of its time if slightly limited exploration of drug abuse. Old Blue Eyes plays a former illicit card dealer recently released from prison where he kicked a drug habit with the help of a good doctor and healthy distractions such as learning to play the drums. He arrives home to both an overbearing (not to mention overacting) wife who uses her paralysis as an emotional hammer and his former boss and drug supplier who use every opportunity to harass him back into the illegal rackets and the drug use that goes with it. Only his dream of making it big as a drummer and an old flame (Kim Novak) whom he never pursued because of the guilt he feels over his wife give him the motivation to resist.

Though it is never explicitly named, the drug is heroin and for 1955, that was controversial enough. There’s an admirable attempt to show the grittier side to the life of an addict from the demeaning desperate acts to acquire a fix to the turmoil of cold turkey and Sinatra and writers Walter Newman and Lewis Melter (adapting Nelson Algren’s novel) give it a reasonably dramatic depth. Sinatra was actually quite interesting in these far from tough guy roles (e.g., From Here to Eternity) even if at times he played them a little wide-eyed. That was largely down to his watchability and his natural charisma but he puts a lot of himself into this role and it shows. Novak is excellent as the moral compass in his life and gives yet another professional performance full of wisdom. That is in stark contrast to Eleanor Parker’s unfortunately poor turn as the needy wife which just seems out of kilter with the rest of the film.

If anyone is in their element here, it’s Preminger who pulls out all the stops with his set design, lighting, and general composition. From the moment Saul Bass’ typically quirky opening credits appear in tandem with Elmer Bernstein’s sultry yet jaunty score (a style of opening we’d see again in Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder) to the dramatic close, The Man with the Golden Arm is an immensely polished and visually striking film. To such an extent in fact that it ranks up there with films like The Big Sleep. The drama is a little weak by today’s standards and it clearly didn’t occur to anyone to address the more squalid and sordid moral dilemas that addiction can give rise to but the technical sophistication and compelling turns allow us to look past that. Overall, The Man with the Golden Arm is a strong addition to both Preminger and Sinatra’s catalogue and a worthy film for its time.

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