JT Film Review

113 – The Man with the Golden Arm (1955)

The Man with the Golden Arm REVIEW

5/5 stars

Director – Otto Preminger

Cast – Frank Sinatra, Eleanor Parker, Kim Novak, Arnold Stang, Darren McGavin


The Man with the Golden Arm stars Frank Sinatra as “Frankie Machine” (is it just me who hates it when a character played by a huge star has the same first name?) in a story about drug abuse that was controversial and even revolutionary in its time. The Motion Picture Association of America wouldn’t even certify the film, which would generally signify certain death to a film. It was released however, and found an overwhelming success, both critically and in terms of box office receipts.

The plot is one of the ultimate under-dog stories. Frankie Machine is a recently recovered drug addict. He is not a poor man, but he is certainly not well off. He is a bit down on his luck, but we get the impression when we first see him that he is a changed man. Throughout the film we see him slip more and more towards that original man, but we never see him go back across it.

Upon his release from the detox center we see that Frankie’s invalid wife has since lost her trust in him. She pretends to be still wheelchair-bound despite having recovered during his stint in rehab, worrying that Frankie will leave her if he no longer feels he must support her. His old employer, for whom Frankie dealt illegal card games, tries to rope him back in, and his old drug dealer tries to bring him back into the fold as well. He resists these temptations very well at first. He has an oppurtunity to play drums for a big band, and looks forward with great anticipation to the moment where he can lift himself out of his old life. His dealer, of course, has other plans…

So, while the movie perhaps fail to directly use the phrase “drug addiction”, we then come to realize that it certainly will not fail to address the actual issue in a brutal and bracing way. We see Frankie go from the “high” of being released from the detox center to the lows of re-addiction. Heroin’s grip on him increases, until he, with the help of a “close-friend” (his mistress) he decides to quit cold-turkey. In the movie’s most famous scene he is locked in a room for three days, til he no longer feels the addiction. We see Frankie rolling around on the floor and the bed in agony, as the camera passively watches. It is a powerful scene, and one that cinched Sinatra’s Oscar nomination.

In some ways it is hard to see how the film could have caused such an uproar, and in other ways not. It is certainly an intense film that follows its character through quite painful lows, but there isn’t even one use of the word “drug” or “heroin” or “addiction” once in the whole thing. Any actual mention of the issue is danced around so much… but I guess that is an indication of the social mores of the time, rather than an artistic decision. While this may throw off some of today’s viewers, if taken in stride and seen as an example of the times in which the film is made then it isn’t too much to worry about.

When talking about the performances it is of course necessary to give Sinatra all praise possible not only for his wonderful acting (through which he never trivializes the role of “drug slave”), but for his pure bravery in taking on such a controversial film, and thus giving it an audience it never would have had otherwise. However Kim Novak (as Frankie’s mistress) is definitely worth a mention as well. Here, three years away from her famous role in Vertigo, she delivers a performance that is much better than her turn in that film. She looks, speaks, and moves much more naturally than most other female actors of the time. For example her co-star here, Eleanor Parker, acts very much in the style of the melodramatic female stars of the earlier film era. Novak is convincing and subdued, which works perfectly well against Sinatra.

This movie can ultimately be said to be about forgiveness, and whether or not people should have a second chance. The answer given un seems to be “No, they should not have a second chance until they have been proven worthy of it, or changed themselves of their own volition.” One may need a dear friend to get through it, but it must in the end come from within. Frankie is a good man, one who is led astray, true, but he is a good man at heart. While it is a movie about a bleak subject, it ends on a note of ultimate optimism. The movie asserts that good people will triumph in the end. Frankie certainly does, and we are right along with him.


I find it hard to give The Man with the Golden Arm the praise which I feel it deserves, both as a remarkably gripping film and as one that was ahead of its time in its outlook. The acting is impeccable, and the tone is presented perfectly. Most of all, I think it is written very well, and that is, in the end, where such believable characters come from. Kudos to all involved for doing so well with the material, and also for taking on material that was so controversial (for its time). Recommended to all.



“The Man with the Golden Arm” on other websites:

IMDB —– Rotten Tomatoes —– Wikipedia



November 7, 2010 - Posted by | 5 Stars, Film Review, Genre - Drama, Year - 1950-1959 | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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