The Man with the Golden Arm (1955)

“You mean just stop? Cold turkey? You don’t understand! The pain…”

‘The Man with the Golden Arm’, directed by Otto Preminger in 1955, is an American drama focusing on the descent into drug addiction and crime of a professional drummer and gambler Frankie Machine, played by Frank Sinatra. Machine has been released from prison where he has cleaned himself up and kicked a heroin habit. Once out he returns to his old neighbourhood where he tries to work whilst looking after his wheelchair bound wife. A run-in with the police and pressure from the local gangs draws him back into using, whilst his marriage is threatened when he’s drawn towards an old flame called Molly. For the time it is a surprisingly frank and explicit examination of the effects of drug addiction and the pain of dependence and withdrawal. The whole film is about compulsion and pressure, from Machine’s need for work and a creative release not based on crime, to his wife’s suffering from Munchausen syndrome, faking her disability to gain his attention and sympathy. These two poles of obsessive behaviour are the connective tissue between the narrative of Machine’s interaction with the crime world, and his love affair with Molly. It’s dark, crisply shot and well-acted, although Sinatra’s performance is clearly directed towards a demonstration of his range and has the feeling of a calling card. The only moment that feels out of place is the ending when Preminger avoids a downbeat conclusion to Machine’s story despite laying plot points that seem to be leading towards one. Instead he goes for a romantic and cathartic conclusion in which the addiction seems to have been conquered overnight that somewhat undermines the cautionary tale that has gone before.

Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s a brave and edgy movie. Watch with either ‘Trainspotting’ for an updated depiction of heroin use, or Damien Chazelle’s ‘Whiplash’ for an updated depiction of drumming.


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