The Man with the Golden Arm

PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):

Frankie Machine (Frank Sinatra) is released from prison with a set of drums and a new outlook on life, and returns to his run down neighborhood on the North Side of Chicago. A heroin addict, Frankie became clean in prison. On the outside, he greets friends and acquaintances. Sparrow (Arnold Stang), who runs a con selling homeless dogs, clings to him like a young brother, but Schwiefka (Robert Strauss), whom Frankie used to deal for in his illegal card game, has more sinister reasons for welcoming him back, as does Louis (Darren McGavin), Machine’s former heroin dealer.

Frankie returns home to his wife Zosh (Eleanor Parker), who is supposedly wheelchair-bound (but secretly fully recovered) after a car crash some years earlier. Frankie comments on the whistle she wears around her neck, a device she used in Frankie’s absence to summon a neighbor, Vi (Doro Merande), when needed. With Frankie home, Zosh smothers her husband in their small tenement apartment and hinders his attempt to make something of himself. He thinks he has what it takes to play drums for a big band. While calling to make an appointment, he bumps into an old flame, Molly (Kim Novak) who works in a local strip joint as a hostess and lives in the apartment below Frankie’s.

Frankie soon gets himself a tryout and asks Sparrow to get him a new suit, but the suit is a stolen one and he ends up back in a cell at a local Chicago Police Precinct. Schwiefka offers to pay the bail. Frankie refuses, but soon changes his mind when the sight of a drug addict on the edge becomes too much for him. Now, to repay the debt, he must deal for Schwiefka again. Louis is trying to hook him on heroin again, and with no job and Zosh to please, pressure is building from all directions.

Soon Frankie succumbs and is back on drugs and dealing marathon, all-night, card games for Schwiefka. He gets a tryout as a drummer, but spends 24 hours straight dealing a poker game. Desperately needing a fix, Frankie follows Louis home, attacks him, ransacks his house, but can’t find his stash of heroin. At the audition, with withdrawal coming on, Frankie can’t keep the beat and ruins his chance of landing the drumming job. When Louis goes to see Zosh to try to find him, Louis discovers that Zosh has been faking her paralysis and can walk. Zosh, scared of being found out, pushes Louis over the railing of the stairwell to his death, but things backfire when Frankie is sought for murder.

Initially not realizing he is a suspect in Louie’s death, Frankie goes to Molly hoping to get money for a fix. After learning that Det. Bednar and the police are looking for him, Molly convinces Frankie that he must go cold turkey if he is to stand a chance with the police. Frankie agrees and is locked in Molly’s apartment where he goes through a grueling withdrawal to clear the drugs from his body. Finally clean again, he tells Zosh he is going to leave her, start anew and stand trial. In her desperation, Zosh once again gives herself away, standing up in front of Frankie and the police. She runs, but can get no farther than the outside balcony. Trapped, she blows the whistle and throws herself off the balcony to her death. A police ambulance then arrives to remove Zosh’s lifeless body and drives away, while Frankie watches in dismay. He then walks away with Molly.


With National Jazz Appreciation Month drawing to a close, it was brought to my attention that I have yet to review a jazz film. If you search the archives of this blog, you will notice that I have gone through quite a few of those since the beginning, which makes it hard to find any that are left. I think I found one, though, in The Man with the Golden Arm. Yes, I know it sounds like it should the title of a James Bond film.

What is this about?

Frank Sinatra turns in an Oscar-nominated performance as Frankie Machine, a heroin addict and gifted card dealer trying to kick his drug habit so he can pursue his dream of becoming a professional jazz drummer. But a nagging wife, a high stakes poker game and a suspicious death conspire against Frankie’s desperate attempts to give up the needle once and for all.

What did I like?

Heroin. Today, it seems as if you can see drug addiction as easily as you can find a love story in film, but at the time this was released, that was not the case. As a matter of fact, when this was in the early stages of being adapted from the book, the heroin parts weren’t included because the MPAA would never let it fly. Thankfully, they came down from their high horse and let it slide, because Sinatra’s heroin addiction is such a powerful and poignant plot device.

Ol’ Blue Eyes. Speaking of Sinatra, I’ve seen him in a few films, all musicals, I believe. I’m well aware that along with that great voice, he could sing, but I didn’t know that the guy had some serious Academy Award Nominee acting chops! Holy Cow! This must have been the performance of his career because it was so moving, so powerful, so raw, and so emotional. A supposedly sober card dealer who falls back into heroin, loses everything, and fights to get it back. Sinatra nails every aspect of that description and then some.

Score. The opening scene of the film is pure big band bebop. The animation that goes along with it is hip with the style of the time (watch late 50s/early 60s Bugs Bunny/Coyote/Daffy/etc. cartoons and you’ll see what I’m referring to). Elmer Bernstein is a genius composer, but what is more impressive is that there really isn’t that much music. The opening theme is heard a few times and in the bar you can hear some jazz on the radio, but that’s it. Bernstein’s music makes an impression on the listener, still, even though it isn’t heard that much.

What didn’t I like?

Baroness. Does the name Eleanor Parker ring a bell? No? Well, surely you have seen her in a little film known as The Sound of Music where she plays the Baroness. Truthfully, I wasn’t a fan of her performance there and in this film I get the same feeling. I’m starting to wonder if I have some ill will towards this woman! Her character, who is Sinatra’s nagging wife confined to a wheelchair, is a contradiction. What I mean by that is we’ll see her in one scene and she’s very likable and sympathetic and in the next, she’s downright despicable! Pick a side, lady!

Jazz…or lack thereof. With that jazzy opening, and all Sinatra’s talk of joining a band, you’d think there’d have been some jazz in this flick. Well, we get one scene where Sinatra fails his audition, and that’s it. Being a jazz lover, I’m a bit biased when it comes to this, but to me this was just a cocktease. If you’re going to use jazz in your film, then either play it up in the soundtrack like The Incredibles or Catch Me If You Can (to a lesser extent), or leave it out altogether.

The play’s the thing. With the way this film is acted, I initially thought it was adapted from a play, rather than a novel. It is very stage-like. I was half expecting the lights to dim and to hear sets moving after every act. The stage aspect, could be good or bad, depending on how you look at it. For me, I would have preferred a more cinematic experience, is all. Also, as I mentioned before, the lack of in-scene music added to the play mentality.

The Man with a Golden Arm really disappointed me. Not because it is a bad film, mind you, but because it wasn’t what it was advertised to be. I was expecting something more along the lines of A Man Called Adam. Instead, I get a non-gangster film-noire. At any rate, I can say that this wasn’t a total loss. There is a really good story here told by some fine actors. Do I recommend this film? Yes, I believe it would be worth your time to check it out at some point.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars


One Response to “The Man with the Golden Arm”

  1. […] A few months back, I reviewed a small Frank Sinatra film, The Man with the Golden Arm. I still lament the lack of actual jazz, and music for that matter, in that picture. In a twist of […]

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