Two years after his censorship battle over The Moon is Blue (1953), Otto Preminger again provoked the censors with his 1955 film The Man with the Golden Arm. A significant film from Preminger’s middle-career, The Man with the Golden Arm is at once emotionally and visually compelling, and efficient and contained; the work of a controlled and assertive director. It features a remarkably assured performance from Frank Sinatra as the central protagonist Frankie Machine, a recently reformed heroin addict who struggles to keep clean after returning from rehab to his home in a grimy Chicago slum. Sinatra, whose preparation for the role involved spending time with addicts at drug rehabilitation clinics, impressed Preminger and other crew members with his confident performance. The film also marked Preminger’s first significant collaboration with Saul Bass, who designed the film’s remarkable paper cut animation opening title sequence. Bass went on to create many more title sequences and artwork for Preminger, including for Anatomy of a Murder (1959), and, famously, for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959) and Psycho (1960). However, The Man with the Golden Arm is perhaps best remembered for being one of the first films to portray illicit drug use, in defiance of the Production Code Administration’s (PCA) ruling against such portrayals. The resulting controversy ensured that Preminger had significant access to the press, further contributing to the popular understanding of the director as a champion in the fight against Hollywood censorship.
When it was first suggested to Preminger that he adapt Nelson Algren’s novel The Man with the Golden Arm for the screen, the director was allegedly unenthusiastic. However, his interest was piqued at the possibility of using the film as a vehicle for breaking the PCA’s restriction on the representation of drugs. Preminger sent the script to Jeffrey Shurlock, then director of the PCA, with the request that he read the script personally and recommending its potential for rendering public service. Ultimately, the film did not receive the PCA seal of approval. In a review at the time of the film’s release, V. F. Perkins wrote that although The Man with the Golden Arm was “inferior” to the rest of Preminger’s work to that point, it “could serve as a model of the well-made film on a forbidden subject” (1). It earned a respectable sum at the box office and was nominated for three Academy Awards, including for Sinatra as Best Actor in a Leading Role. In 1956 the Production Code statute on drugs was amended, a change that no doubt owed much to Preminger’s campaign.
Critics of the film generally cite the film’s moral simplification and “unrealistic” conclusion, showing that its hero has freed himself from addiction by sheer willpower. In this regard, comparisons with Algren’s novel are inevitable. In Algren’s story, Frankie murders his drug dealer, Louie, and eventually commits suicide while his love interest, Molly, becomes a prostitute. Frankie’s fate is far less bleak in Preminger’s adaptation, which follows a more conventional Hollywood narrative line. Fundamentally, it is the story of Frankie’s redemption and triumph over his demons. Frankie is burdened by guilt over the fate of his wife Zosh, who was injured in a car accident while Frankie was drunk at the wheel. Zosh feigns paraplegia in order to keep Frankie for herself, exploiting his guilty conscience. She obstructs his ambition to be a drummer, the one thing that Frankie hopes will keep him clean, and urges him to take up his old job as a card dealer, a slippery slope that results in Frankie’s renewed heroin addiction. Although all the odds appear to be against him, Frankie succeeds through self-determination and the support of Molly (Kim Novak), and the film concludes with the promise of romantic closure.
For its time, The Man with the Golden Arm’sexplicit depiction of heroin use was remarkable, as was its implicit expectation that the audience empathise with the user. In one fantastic sequence, Louie seduces Frankie back to the dark side at the local bar, and we are seduced along with him. A notable example of Preminger’s mastery over filmic space, his meticulous construction of the scene and the graceful back-and-forth camera movement between the self-satisfied Louie and jittery Frankie is enthralling. As Frankie arrives at the bar, he’s framed from behind, pausing in the doorway. In the reverse shot, we see Louie in close-up, drinking at the bar, with Frankie in the background. As if sensing Frankie’s eyes on him, Louie turns slowly around in his seat. Although their eyes don’t meet, the connection between the two is confirmed as the camera swings in one smooth movement from Louie to Frankie. Frankie is clearly distracted, his eyes focused on Louie’s back, listening with only half an ear as his friend Sparrow yaps about the dog he has stolen for Zosh. The dangerous flirtation between Louie and Frankie continues: we cut again to Louie at the bar, Frankie again in the background; Louie turns again, and as he gets up the camera moves with him towards the exit, pausing as he reaches Frankie in a fleeting but intimate shot of the two men standing side by side. Their eyes meet for the first time in this scene, and although no words are exchanged, it’s clear that they have just made an agreement. In the next scene, Frankie is undoing his shirtsleeves as he enters Louie’s apartment – they’ve done this many times before. The jazz score (performed by Shorty Rogers and His Giants) gets frantic and lewd, a blast of brass notes punctuating each inexplicable accoutrement that Louie pulls out in order to give Frankie his fix. As Louie approaches he tells Frankie, “The monkey’s never dead, dealer; the monkey never dies. When you kick him off, he just hides in a corner waiting his turn.” Emphasising Frankie’s uneasy state of mind and the moral and psychological implications of his actions, the camera zooms in massively, unsteadily, on Frankie’s face as Louie injects the heroin.
Through the tight control and efficient use of space we get a sense that the world exists only for Frankie. It’s a claustrophobic bubble in which his internalised war plays out. The Man with the Golden Arm’s visual style is characterised by its use of closed-off but connected spaces, the action constrained almost entirely to the main street and locations just off the street, so that we are able to create for ourselves a map of the film’s geography and understand how the spaces, and therefore the characters that inhabit them, are connected. The small cast of characters flit easily between one location and the next: the bar, Frankie’s apartment, Louie’s apartment, Schwiefka’s back room. There is a “stagey” feel to the action, an artificial quality that perhaps belies Preminger’s theatrical roots – he worked in theatre for over a decade in his native Vienna before hearing the call of Hollywood.
The foundation for Preminger’s control over filmic space is the use of the studio. Rather than shooting on location, The Man with the Golden Arm’s Chicago slum was constructed on an RKO backlot. Depending on whether you believe Preminger or Algren, the decision to shoot The Man with the Golden Arm in the studio was either Preminger’s second choice, which he was forced to take to keep costs down (2), or it was an example of Preminger’s prejudice against the lower classes. According to Algren, who had been aggravated by Preminger’s classist inferences ever since their first meeting, Preminger dismissed criticisms of his decision not to shoot on location, saying, “Oh, that neighbourhood’s all built up now; there are no slums left” (3). The sets have been criticised, not entirely unfairly, as caricature-ish and unfaithful to Algren’s depiction of “real life” in the Chicago slums. But that is really beside the point; it would have been an entirely different sort of film if Preminger had resolved to shoot on location. Preminger perhaps even gives a cheeky preemptive nod to these sorts of criticisms in a scene in which, elated about his prospects of becoming a professional drummer, Frankie takes a stroll with Molly down a city street. They stop to peer in at a shop display. Behind the glass is an elaborate kitchen scene depicting a happy housewife washing dishes while her husband reads. The kitchen set fills the frame behind them, putting them in the scene with the husband and wife. However, the set is absurdly fake (“goofy” says Frankie), as is Frankie and Molly’s fantasy of themselves taking the place of the happy couple. The scene alludes to the fantasy of the set-within-a-set, but also serves as a bitter reminder of a life that Frankie may never attain.
Frankie’s story is bookended by two street scenes. In the film’s opening, he steps off the bus onto the street, bags in hand, looking a lot like he’s been on a much-needed holiday. At the end of the film, as Zosh’s dead body is taken away, Frankie is clean again. He and Molly walk off in the morning sunlight, presumably severing their ties with the slums, gambling and drugs forever. But as they walk to the unmapped edges of Preminger’s urban construction, a threat still hangs over them. Louie’s earlier words resonate: just around the corner that monkey may be hiding, waiting for his next turn.
The Man with the Golden Arm(1955 USA 119 mins)
Prod Co: Otto Preminger Films/Carlyle Productions Prod, Dir: Otto Preminger Scr: Walter Newman, Lewis Meltzer [and Ben Hecht, uncredited], based on the novel by Nelson Algren Phot: Sam Leavitt Ed: Louie R Loeffler Prod Des: Joseph C. Wright Mus: Elmer Bernstein
Cast: Frank Sinatra, Eleanor Parker, Kim Novak, Arnold Stang, Darren McGavin, Robert Strauss