In the wake of World War II and continuing well into and beyond the Vietnam War, the question of drug use among men was a hot-button topic that Hollywood hadn’t really dealt with any sense of gravity. With the horrors of the war coming into focus and being dealt with, Hollywood saw a wave of socially conscious films dealing with real-world issues such as bigotry (1947’s Gentlemen’s Agreement), and, for the purposes of today’s review, alcoholism. The Lost Weekend had been put out just ten years prior to Otto Preminger’s meditation on heroin addiction, and yet the two addictions are indistinguishable from one another. The main challenge watching The Man With the Golden Arm is today’s knowledge about what addiction truly looks like, and suffice it to say it’s not as pretty as Frank Sinatra made it look.
Frankie Machine (Sinatra) has returned home from jail/rehab after kicking his addiction to heroin. Unfortunately his circumstances haven’t changed as his wheelchair-bound wife, Zosh (Eleanor Parker) demands all his time and he’s continuously tempted by the local dealer (Darren McGavin). When Frankie gets an opportunity to play in a jazz band he’s thrilled, but his old demons threaten to ruin all the possibilities he’s accumulated.
It’s hard separating this from Billy Wilder’s examination of alcoholism since Otto Preminger takes the basic premise and just changes the “monkey” on Frankie’s back. It’s doubtful Preminger intended to borrow so liberally; this was still 1955 and the MPAA originally refused the film a seal of approval for its subject matter. To modern audiences the notion seems ridiculous as there’s few sequences of Frankie shooting it up.
The narrative presents a slow buildup to Frankie’s eventual relapse, devoting the majority of the film to his attempts to get his life in order and move on. Much like the audience, Frankie is waiting for that confrontation with the deadly drug that’s caused his downward spiral previously, and he’s certainly given enough reason to return to the escape that drugs offer. His wife, Zosh, reminds him of the drunken car crash he caused that resulted in her being in a wheelchair. Of course, he doesn’t know she’s cured, but regardless of all that, he already feels bad enough without her constant reminders. Eleanor Parker, whose own social awareness film, Caged, debuted five years prior, acts well enough for sympathy to blossom from a character who is despicable. She’s been neglected well before Frankie’s time in jail, and since we only have their current situation to go off of, there are questions of when Frankie started taking up with his downstairs neighbor/barroom hostess, Molly (Kim Novak).
Much like Parker’s Caged, the movie places the blame for relapse on societal factors like poverty and poor environment. Frankie wants to turn his life around and take up music, but the need for money now places him in the position of “borrowing” a suit for a job interview and landing in jail. He’s bailed out by local crime boss Schwiefka (Robert Strauss) and is forced to work for Schwiefka’s gambling den as a dealer – another moment of allusion to the countless addictions plaguing people daily. Because Frankie can’t make money, he can’t impress, and because he can’t impress he’s stuck in the dead-end job he’s always been in. If he can escape the town, Frankie has a chance of escaping his addictions once and for all.
Novak excelled at playing blue-collar women with delusions of grandeur, and her Molly is one of those women who cling desperately to what little thread of class and dignity they still possess; the prom queen who peaked in high school and can’t figure out what to do next but continue to wait for the next prom. Like Frankie, Molly suffers from an addiction, that of picking men who use and abuse her. Molly and Frankie are equally damaged, or it’s the comparison the script wants to make. Really, Molly is the warm center of stability, caring for Frankie when he finally hits bottom. Their relationship, fraught with Zosh’s presence, is given a convenient open door for future happiness by the end, capping this presumably harsh struggle to overcome one of the deadliest drugs out there with an “and they all lived happily ever after.”
The Man With the Golden Arm’s enemy is time. In 1955, heroin addiction wasn’t well-known, hidden in the shadows with those suffering often institutionalized or sweating it out in prisons. Countless stars of the golden age died of drug overdoses with heroin being a key factor in a few deaths (although never confirmed). When Frankie starts to jones for a fix he gets the shakes and becomes a bit aggressive. As I mentioned before, there’s little distinguishing this from alcoholism. Expecting something out of Requiem for a Dream is ridiculous considering the time period, but you have seen that film then Frankie Machine tameness plays like little more than Hollywood “addiction.” This doesn’t make The Man With the Golden Arm bad. It is a landmark film for opening up the possibility for harsher topics to be explored in movies – movies tackling abortion, kidnapping, and prostitution would crop up in the wake of the movie’s success. But it is a foundation, a movie you can watch to orient yourself to what drugs, according to movies, were hoped to look like and not what they actually were.
The Man With the Golden Arm is heroin-lite; a serious film for the bobby-soxers and their parents who wanted to know what to fear in 1955. It certainly removes the “chic” from the drug, but there’s really no long-term consequences we’re ever privy to. Frank Sinatra tries to infuse as much fear, horror, and sympathy to make up for the lack of true depravity, and this is the best role of his I’ve seen. Eleanor Parker and Kim Novak are also good in what could have been typical women roles. If you’re interested in exploring the history of drug use in American cinema, you can’t do better than this as a starting point.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.