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. In fact, a bit too candidly for some, seeing as the film was denied the Production Code’s Seal of Approval upon its initial release. The year was 1955, and the Code (which had been both the moral watchdog for America and the official censor for Hollywood since the early 1930's) still viewed drug addiction as a taboo subject for feature films. Quite surprisingly, the Code stood alone on this one, as 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 film, marking the first time a major studio production was released nationally without the Production Code’s Seal.
Based on the novel by Nelson Algren, The Man with the Golden Arm tells the story of Frankie Machine (Frank Sinatra), a former heroin addict who’s just returned home following a stint in rehab. Having beaten his addiction, Frankie's determined to start life over again, hoping to finally realize his dream of becoming a jazz drummer. But the pressures Frankie feels from those around him, including his wheelchair-bound wife, Zosch (Eleanor Parker), threaten to drive him back to his old ways. Only Molly (Kim Novak), a former sweetheart, supports Frankie through this troubling 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 major studio films like From Here to Eternity and The Manchurian Candidate, but then he also managed to shine brightly in a handful of smaller movies as well, like 1954’s Suddenly. What struck me most 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, early on, it’s difficult to even spot the difference in his behavior. Ultimately, the only way to tell Frankie’s back on ‘the fix’ is the look in his eyes. Several times throughout the film, director Preminger focuses his camera squarely on Sinatra’s eyes, giving us an up-close look at the debilitating effects the drugs are having on his character. But then, once Frankie's addictions take over, it isn't long before he's 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 strict regulations the following year, approving changes that would allow the “sensible depiction” of, among other things, drug addiction and prostitution. Though it took a while, the Production Code did finally realize that Post-War America was struggling with its own identity, and as a result, a multitude of social problems had found their way into the public's consciousness. Things were tough, and it was high time motion pictures started to reflect this reality. With The Man with the Golden Arm as a starting point, Hollywood would never be the same again.