Friday, July 22, 2011

#350. The Man with the Golden Arm (1955)

Directed By: Otto Preminger

Starring: Frank Sinatra, Kim Novak, Eleanor Parker

Trivia:  Marlon Brando was offered the role of Frankie Machine, but Frank Sinatra jumped at the opportunity and was signed before Brando could accept

Otto Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm deals candidly with the subject of drug addiction.  A bit too candidly for some, in fact, seeing as the film, upon its initial release, was denied the Production Code’s Seal of Approval. The year was 1955, and the Code (which had been the moral watchdog and official censor of Hollywood since the early 1930's) still viewed drug addiction as a taboo subject for feature films. 

Surprisingly, the Code stood alone on this one; even the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency gave The Man with the Golden Arm a passing grade. Bolstered by the Legion’s support, the producers decided to go ahead and distribute the movie, marking the first time a major studio film was released nationally without the Production Code’s Seal. 

Frankie Machine (Frank Sinatra), a former heroin addict, has just returned home from a stint in rehab. Having beaten his addiction, Frankie is determined to get his life back on track, and maybe even realize his dreams of becoming a jazz drummer. 

But the pressures put on Frankie by those around him, including his wheelchair-bound wife Zosch (Eleanor Parker), are more than he can bear, and he soon finds himself in need of a fix. Only Molly (Kim Novak), a former sweetheart, supports Frankie through this tough time, and works hard to keep him on the straight and narrow. 

I’ve always been a fan of Frank Sinatra's work in front of the camera. He was excellent in such studio-produced classics as From Here to EternityThe Manchurian Candidate, and Von Ryan's Express, but also managed to shine in a handful of smaller movies as well, like 1954’s Suddenly. What struck me as I watched Sinatra in The Man with the Golden Arm was how he never rushed his performance. Frankie’s fall happens very methodically, so much so that, when things first spiral out of control, it’s difficult to spot the difference in his behavior. Ultimately, the only way to tell Frankie is back on drugs is the look in his eyes. Several times throughout the film, director Preminger focuses his camera squarely on Frankie’s eyes, giving us an up-close look at the debilitating effects the drugs are having on him. 

Once Frankie's addictions take control of him again, it isn't long before he is completely hooked. All at once, he changes from a former addict who felt he could handle the occasional fix to an out-of-control junkie whose life is once again slipping away from him. 

Due in part to their experience with The Man with the Golden Arm, the Production Code updated their regulations the following year, approving changes that would allow the “sensible depiction” of - among other things - drug addiction and prostitution. It took some time for the Code to realize that Post-War America was struggling to find its identity, and as a result, a multitude of social problems had found their way into the public's consciousness. Times were tough, and audiences wanted motion pictures to reflect this reality. 

With The Man with the Golden Arm leading the way, Hollywood would never be the same again.

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