There are a few problems with The Man with the Golden Arm. It’s hard to think of the film actually having any defects, since it’s such a brilliantly made motion picture. It was one of the first Preminger films I saw and was I ever surprised when they all weren’t so beautifully put together. The film’s shot on this magnificent set–it’s a block and a quarter maybe (shades of Eyes Wide Shut in terms of the control Preminger could get from it)–and Preminger’s camera floats around it; it’s impossible to think the camera’s on a pre-laid track. Then there’s the music–Elmer Bernstein’s score is always fantastic, always right on, whether he’s dealing with addiction, human regard or suspense. Or the script–there’s amazing dialogue throughout the entire film.
I think this viewing must have been my third of the film and, again, I had the sensation at the open–it had to be better than I remembered, just look at that opening shot. But as the running time passes, the problems become clear. It’s unbelievable Frank Sinatra’s character would marry Eleanor Parker’s because he crippled her in a car accident. It’s not unbelievable he would have been torn up about it, but the film directly says he only married her because he felt responsible. The character doesn’t play that way–not with him becoming a heroin addict and flushing everything but that responsibility away. It could play–he’s escaping into the heroin–but the script doesn’t set it up. It’s almost implied in some dialogue (the film opens after Sinatra’s clean following six months of rehab); it’s not enough.
Second big problem–Kim Novak’s a together young woman who can’t find a better job than being a friendly, paid patron at a burlesque parlor. Or whatever the women who have drinks with and smile at the men are called. There’s got to be a word for it. It simply does not work. She’s too obviously a function, too obviously a cog in the eventual dramatic wheel. It’s possible her character in the source novel had a less censor-friendly profession, but it doesn’t work in the film. She’s practically a saint (she only completes one miracle in the film).
The acting is fantastic–Parker’s amazing as the manipulating, wheelchair-bound wife. Novak’s great. Darren McGavin and Robert Strauss are excellent villains. McGavin would give the film’s most astounding performance–of pure, friendly evil–if it weren’t for Sinatra. Everything Sinatra does in the film, down to chewing on a cheese sandwich, is magnificent. Arnold Stang makes a great sidekick for him too.
The biggest problem with The Man with the Golden Arm is its cleanliness. It’s a long film–the set makes it feel like a stage play, as do the lengthy conversations; time passes sort of just passes, a day here, a week there. It invites the viewer to think about what Sinatra’s doing during these stretches, but then it goes and makes it impossible (he and Parker can’t have a single calm moment together). There’s so much discussion about upcoming, scheduled events, it’s hard to remember they haven’t already happened. Preminger needed to apply some of his directorial discipline on the script. By the time it reaches the inevitable–from the third or fourth scene–conclusion, it’s hard to remember the film isn’t already over.
But Sinatra’s simply amazing. I mean, it’s got a lot of great acting–Sinatra, Parker and McGavin–but it’s inconceivable Sinatra’s not better regarded for his acting skills.
Produced and directed by Otto Preminger; screenplay by Walter Newman and Lewis Meltzer, based on the novel by Nelson Algren; director of photography, Sam Leavitt; edited by Louis R. Loeffler; music by Elmer Bernstein; production designer, Joseph C. Wright; released by United Artists.
Starring Frank Sinatra (Frankie Machine), Eleanor Parker (Zosch Machine), Kim Novak (Molly), Arnold Stang (Sparrow), Darren McGavin (Louie), Robert Strauss (Schwiefka), John Conte (Drunky), Doro Merande (Vi), George E. Stone (Sam Markette), George Mathews (Williams), Leonid Kinskey (Dominiwski) and Emile Meyer (Detective Bednar).