The United States of America
Louie: The monkey is never dead, Dealer. The monkey never dies. When you kick him off, he just hides in a corner, waiting his turn.
Ten years after Billy Wilder would shock the world with the first realistic portrayal of alcoholism in The Lost Weekend (1945), Otto Preminger would stun audiences with The Man with the Golden Arm, one of the first films to ever portray the effects of heroin addiction. The concept is may not seem that unusual today. But imagine what a firestorm it created back in the mid-50s. It created such an outcry that The Motion Picture Association of America originally refused to issue it a seal. It was eventually released without the seal, paving the way for other movies to explore taboo subjects such as drug abuse, abortion, and prostitution (subjects that the director Otto Preminger made a point of dealing with in his films). But despite its influence, The Man with the Golden Arm is frequently forgotten about in the realms of Hollywood lore. When people think of Preminger, they usually think of his film noir masterpieces Laura (1944) and Fallen Angel (1945). But they shouldn’t. The Man with the Golden Arm is a tightly filmed, expertly directed, and devastatingly acted triumph of a picture. It opened the floodgates for a new level of social consciousness in both the public and in Hollywood.
The film centers on the appropriately named Frankie Machine, played by the great Frank Sinatra. Let me get this out of the way: Sinatra will never be appreciated for the great actor that he was. He really was one of the best actors of his era. Anyway, it focuses on Frankie Machine, a heroin addict that just got out of rehab. He walks with a smile on his face because he has successfully kicked the habit. While in rehab he learned how to play the drums and now looks forward to a steady career on the straight and narrow. But fate has other ideas…
While Frankie successfully kicked the habit, he is forced to return to a toxic environment. A former card dealer, he would spend countless nights presiding over illegal fixed poker games. His old boss, Schwiefka, wants him to return to his job and even frames him of a crime so that he gets arrested when he refuses. Forced with staying in jail, Frankie reluctantly lets Schwiefka pay his bail and returns as to his old job.
But Schwiefka isn’t the only force at play in Frankie’s life. Probably the most poisonous relationship is the one with his wife Zosh, a wheelchair-bound invalid who smothers Frankie. Paralyzed after a car accident, Zosh desperately clings to Frankie and begs for him to return to his old job and scoffs at his dream of becoming a drummer. In truth, Zosh is one of the most interesting characters in the film. What’s her motivation? She is willing to let Frankie succumb to his old ways (and habits) just as long as he provides for her. The only way to make enough money to sate her is by dealing in the poker game. Does she not realize that by dealing he could get hooked on heroin again and die? Maybe she is just desperate for his attention since she is an invalid. But again, that doesn’t make sense because it is later revealed that she is faking her injury and can walk. Zosh is a unexplainable character. But then again, that is one of the reasons why she is so compelling. Whatever her motivation, she ensures that even at home Frankie cannot escape the pull of his old life.
And then there is his old heroin dealer, Louis, who sees Frankie as just another expendable customer. To him, it doesn’t matter if Frankie lives or dies. There are plenty of other potential customers. But few have as much dough as Frankie. So he begins to pull Frankie back into the world of narcotics.
Indeed, the only source of calm in Frankie’s life is his old flame Molly (played by Kim Novak). A kind source of understanding and stability, she is the only one who truly cares about Frankie’s well being. Well, that’s not true. There is also his friend Sparrow who follows him everywhere, even into jail. But he comes from the same environment that poisoned Frankie in the first place. Molly is the only truly sympathetic character who wants him to be his own man and escape from his past.
Sadly, the pressure is too much for Frankie. Facing a world that wants him to be just as he was before he got clean, Frankie is forced to start shooting up again. At first, it helps him concentrate. But eventually he gets the shakes. Nothing another fix won’t solve. But soon they start asking for more than money. He can’t get his next fix unless he deals for a marathon poker game. Frankie knows that it is the point of no return, and that he must avoid it in order to make it to his drumming audition. But the monkey on his back is too much for him to bear. He shoots up, deals poker all night, flubs his audition, gets thrown out of the game after he accidentally lets it slip that he is cheating.
After running out of the game, Louis goes looking for his favorite customer at his home. He accidentally discovers that Zosh can walk. Scared of being revealed, she pushes him over the railing of the stairwell, killing him instantly. Now, Frankie is being sough for murder. Facing a corrupt police force that sees him as nothing but a two-bit junkie, Frankie begs Molly for help. She tells him that the only way that he stands a chance against the police is to get all of the heroin out of his system. That means quitting cold turkey. Frankie agrees, locks himself in Molly’s apartment, and quits cold turkey.
Now, The Man with the Golden Arm is a phenomenal film. It features many incredible performances and scenes. But the one that always sticks out is Frank Sinatra going through heroin withdrawal in Molly’s apartment. Even today, over fifty years later, it is difficult to watch. Frankie writhes on the floor, shaking, cursing, crying. He begs to be let out. He screams, aches, and suffers. But Molly loves him and knows that this is for his own good. Sinatra’s performance is truly terrifying to watch. Part of this can only be attributed to the fact that Sinatra spent time at drug rehabilitation clinics and observed real addicts going cold turkey. But a large part of it is Sinatra’s electrifying commitment to his role. It makes the audience wonder if Sinatra’s performance was inspired by junkies that he may have known in real life as a singer and actor. Whatever the cause, whatever the motivation, Sinatra performance as a junkie going cold turkey is the centerpiece of the film. I won’t give any more of the plot away because after such a powerful scene it seems unnecessary. The sight of Frankie Machine writhing on the floor overshadows the rest of the film, even the tragic twists and the inevitable upbeat ending.
But to say that The Man with the Golden Arm has a happy ending is a stretch. Too many lives have been destroyed by Frankie and his habit. Despite the fact that things end on a positive note for Frankie, it is apparent that he got lucky. Where there is one successfully treated addict, there are countless others who are not as lucky. And really, The Man with the Golden Arm is about them. It is about the addict who cannot see in any direction but that which heads towards the next fix. The relationships that Frankie has are symbolic: they represent all of the pressure that junkies face that drive them to addiction. Addiction is too often inescapable. But with a little luck and the support of people who truly love them, it doesn’t have to be the end. Whatever the message, The Man with the Golden Arm is a great film. It shows Preminger at the top of his game. It is filled with an urgency that few films of its era were able to duplicate. The camera sways and flows with all the same acrobatic skill as a film by Welles or Hitchcock. And yet, it doesn’t hide behind camera tricks or directorial sleight of hand. The Man with the Golden Arm relies on its characters and story to achieve greatness. Maybe at the time of its release it was too intense to be appreciated. But in today’s world, we can finally marvel at its neglected cinematic genius. It is films like these that can help us remember why we love the movies in the first place, and why we sometimes need them.