Everybody’s habitual something ~ Kim Novak as Molly
Otto Preminger was the creator of a number of important “issue pictures” because he dared deal with themes that others had shied away from, mostly in part because of the production codes that ruled Hollywood well into the 1960s. Thus, any type of drug addiction was seemingly out of the question.
Such an issue might seem almost unthinkable in this day and age but that very fact is one of the reasons that The Man with the Golden Arm still maintains some resonance. Perhaps it has aged some and looks tame by today’s standards, a film that hardly dares to mention the drug in question, and yet there is much to be enjoyed all the same.
Saul Bass’s opening titles for one made the credit sequences of a film into an important attraction and he did much the same for Alfred Hitchcock and other Preminger films as well. The film is also laced with what might be best termed as sleazy jazz music to underscore the world that Frankie Machine (Frank Sinatra) returns to.
Before a word of dialogue is even spoken in the local dive we already have a pulse on what kind of place this is. It’s the type of world that sucks the life out of you. People lead you astray and if you’re not able to make something of yourself you’re bound to sink into the pits.
He is just off a stint in the State Penitentiary but unlike many, his story has a touch of hope. He’s gotten the monkey off his back as they say. He’s no longer addicted thanks to the help of a doctor who also tried to line up a job for him as a drummer. It looks like he has some talent that can take him places. He’s got a lifeline out of town.
His return is a heralded one. Everyone’s intent on welcoming him back including first-rate scrounger Sparrow (Arnold Stang) as well as the pudgy local card shark Schwiefka and the “dealer” Nifty Louie. He’s very much the devil on Frankie’s shoulder coaxing him to give him a call if he ever needs a fix of candy because he used to be a great customer.
Meanwhile, Charlie’s wheelchair-bound wife Zosh (Eleanor Parker) is constantly paranoid about his purported unfaithfulness and simultaneously quells any of his aspirations to make anything more of his life. She’s just a scared little person and her fear stifles Machine even as he tries to make her understand that things are different now.
The one person who does seem to understand him is his old flame Molly (Kim Novak) who is currently a hostess at the local club. He remains faithful to Zosh and yet it is the friendship with another woman that gives him the encouragement to pursue this new path.
Yet the film soon delves into the depths of addiction. As often rings true, after you think you’ve got addiction beat (any kind), it comes back with raging abandon and it goes for the choke hold. A bad break and the plethora of undesirable influences are leading Machine down the well-trod paths of old. He initially gives in and yet still battles and fights and shakes his way back to sobriety. But it’s not easy. The only place he has to turn is Molly and she gladly gives him her support.
All in all, this is a fairly unflinching portrait for the time and this picture points to the fact that Frank Sinatra was a serious actor, not simply a singer, a personality, or a star. Here he offers up an honest to goodness performance though his career was ripe with many others. Still, this one encapsulates the tortured cycles of those trapped in the throes of addiction.
Meanwhile, Kim Novak’s performance flows with a sincerity — a woman who is willing to do what is good and right even when it is difficult and seemingly offers very little recompense. It’s a stirring turn indeed.
The histrionics of Eleanor Parker are maybe a bit much and yet in this performance, you begin to see why she is hardly remembered along with other classical beauties. It’s because she actually wanted to be an actress first and a star second and thus instead of projecting a certain image in all her pictures, it does seem like she’s constantly changing and stretching our expectations of her. Today her choices look quite audacious and yet it no doubt left her contemporary audiences a little befuddled. That in no way detracts from her efforts here if only to magnify our appreciation for Sinatra and Novak’s characters.
Rather than simply seeing this as an antiquated issue picture, a film made for a different era and for a different person than me, I would like to say that there is something of note in The Man with the Golden Arm. As Molly so lucidly acknowledges, many of us go through some type of cycle or we succumb to some habitual pattern whether it be an addiction or something less extreme. Still, either way, these very things can detract from our lives and trap us in rhythms of life that hinder our relationships and all that is truly paramount in life. That’s just a small caveat to take heed of.