By Matt Micucci
The Man With the Golden Arm by Otto Preminger, which features one of the most powerful cinematic Frank Sinatra performances, turned 60 this year.
2015 marked the 60th year anniversary of The Man With the Golden Arm. The film was released in 1955 amidst controversy, which surrounded it right from the beginning, due to the film being based on the novel by Nelson Algren, which dealt with the theme of drug addiction in a most powerful and direct way.
Drug addiction was a taboo theme in fifties Hollywood, and Preminger’s adaptation does all it can to maintain the intensity of the original literary work. Therefore, it was released without certification under the production code of the time because of its controversial matter, helping pave the way for films to tackle more daring material from then on – including themes of abortion and prostitution.
The story of the film is centered around Frankie Machine, a drug addict who cleans up his act while serving a brief spell in jail due to robbery. Upon his return to the outside world, he finds that his path to a full recovery and his every attempt at leaving his old life behind and build a career out of his talent as a drummer is full of bends and obstacles, mostly originating from his crippled wife whose injuries he feels guilty for, and a group of card sharks who look to exploit him in any way they can.
The leading role of Frankie Machine is played by Frank Sinatra, who is actually mentioned twice in Nelson Algren’s 1949 novel. Sinatra was offered the role at the same time as Marlon Brando, and still feeling resentment towards the man for taking the leading role on Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, decided to take the leading role in The Man in the Golden Gun before he even read the screenplay. The two would go on to share the screen in the musical film Guys and Doll made that very same year.
At the time, Sinatra had gained great credibility as an actor of serious roles, especially after winning an Oscar for his supporting role in From Here to Eternity two years earlier, an event that has been quoted time and time again as a key turning point in Ol’ Blue Eyes’ career. This role, however, was comparatively more difficuly, and in order to prepare for it, he visited rehabilitation centres for recovering drug addicts before and during the shoot, even as he worked on the set an average of twelve hours a day.
There are two things in the life of Frankie machine that provide him with the strength and will power to fight back the morphine cravings. One is a neighbour and friend, Kim Novak at her most angelic, who seems hell bent in providing him with support and even shelter when needed. Another comes from Frankie’s love of music, and his determination in nurturing once again his talents for drumming. In a couple of great sequences, Sinatra sits behind the drums, and as the film progresses, his shaky arms become representative of his character’s growing physical struggle.
On top of that, despite Sinatra looking younger than his forty years of age at the time of shoot, throughout the film’s duration he continues to look more and more worn down, which once again reveals the attention to revealing the physical aspect of drug addiction in a way that was unprecedented and raw up to that point in film history, and that is certainly among the things that made The Man with the Golden Arm so controversial upon release.
Sinatra had even recorded a title song, but it was left out of the movie and disappeared altogether for nearly half a century – a similar thing would happen with Kings Go Forth, a film which dealt with Sinatra’s pet issue of racial conflict and that would be made four years later in 1958. The score by Elmer Bernstein, however, was one of the very first jazz sountracks written specifically for a film and is regarded as one of the best film scores of the fifties.
For his role in The Man With the Golden Arm, Sinatra received an Academy Award nomination. Though many felt he should have won it, the coveted statuette went to Ernest Borgnine for his turn as a lovable butcher boy incapable of approaching women who gets what could be his first and last chance at falling in love in the film Marty. The nomination, however, further strengthened Sinatra’s reputation as a serious actor and many more great performances would follow.