Drama

Frank Sinatra’s D-I-Y Detox Program

Frank Sinatra... Image:
Frank Sinatra battles his demons. Image: stagevu.com

In The Man with the Golden Arm, an irritated Kim Novak asks a drug-addled Frank Sinatra some pointed questions.

“Why should you hurt like other people hurt?” she snaps. “Why try to face it like most people do?”

A haggard, unshaven Sinatra is mute during her lecture. He sits slumped, eyes lowered, almost shrivelling into himself. It’s hard to recall another role where Sinatra looks this beaten.

Novak should not be vilified for this haranguing. Her character is in love with Sinatra, and she’s gone to a lot of trouble to help him. But he’s dismissed her advice, and is now asking her to clean up his mess.

You can’t blame her for being upset. After all, his actions have shown her to be a fool.

Kim Novak has a weary love for SInatra. Image: mubi.com
Kim Novak has a weary love for Sinatra. Image: mubi.com

The Man with the Golden Arm (1956) has been called a “sanitized” version of the 1949 novel by Nelson Algren. It was the first major motion picture to portray heroin use, a No-No in the eyes of the Production Code. But producer/director Otto Preminger defied the Code by proceeding with the controversial (read: unapproved) script, and released the film to critical acclaim.

Sinatra was eager to be involved. Legend has it he agreed to star in the film without fully reading the script, and he visited rehab clinics to study treatments for drug addiction.

His presence lends credibility to this gritty cautionary tale. Sinatra plays a WWII vet who works as a dealer in illegal high-stakes card games. Freshly released from prison, he returns to his seedy Chicago neighbourhood determined to make a new start in life.

But it’s hard to break old patterns. The local drug pusher (Darren McGavin) relentlessly woos Sinatra, his former client. His old “boss” (Robert Strauss) is a gambling hustler who badgers Sinatra into dealing cards again.

Then there is Sinatra’s wife (Eleanor Parker), a bitter, manipulative woman who uses a wheelchair due to injuries from a car accident caused by Sinatra.

That’s a lot of pressure, and it’s not long before Sinatra succumbs to the drugs and the illegal gambling. He’s known as “the man with the golden arm” because he’s the best card dealer in the biz. The name has a dual meaning, however, because his arm is also where he receives heroin injections.

Darren McGavin (right) runs a full-service drug operation. Image: ...
Darren McGavin (right) is a full-service drug pusher. Image: Senses of Cinema

Sinatra is utterly mesmerizing as a doomed man trapped by circumstance and his own decisions.

For example, look at the scene where he’s in a jail holding cell. A college student in the cell starts climbing on the bars, screaming, “Let me out! Gimme a fix! Gimme a fix!” Preminger’s camera centres on Sinatra, who looks terrified and humiliated by this display.

Perhaps his most compelling scene is his self-imposed detox in a locked room. It’s exhausting: Sinatra is agitated, irrational, drinking lots of water; he’s in pain, has the shakes, bites his hand to stop from screaming; he pounds on the door, smashes a chair, demands to be let out.

His performance here is so powerful, even the notoriously grumpy New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther had to admit, “[T]here is nothing more bold or shocking…than…this guy writhing on the floor.”

Sinatra’s performance in The Man with the Golden Arm netted him an Oscar nomination, and deservedly so. If you’ve never seen Frank Sinatra in a demanding dramatic role, you should set aside time for this compelling film.

The Man with the Golden Arm: starring Frank Sinatra, Eleanor Parker, Kim Novak. Directed by Otto Preminger. Written by Walter Newman & Lewis Meltzer. United Artists Corp., 1956, B&W, 121 mins.

This post is part of the Sinatra Centennial Blogathon hosted by Movie Classics & The Vintage Cameo. sinatracentennial-vt

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41 thoughts on “Frank Sinatra’s D-I-Y Detox Program

  1. I love Sinatra the Actor as well as Sinatra the Singer, so this film was amazing to me. I don’t know what it is about Frank’s movies, but I’ll watch them and go crazy over him and then I’ll read other people’s thoughts and it’s like they can’t wait to tear it down, especially this movie. I’m excited to enjoy this blogathon and actually read celebrations of Sinatra. Nice choice and great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love this film and just can’t get enough of it – one of Sinatra’s greatest performances as an actor. You’re absolutely right to say he is mesmerising to watch. I hadn’t realised it was the first major film to portray heroin use, which makes it even more ground-breaking. Thanks for this great contribution to the blogathon!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is my favorite Sinatra film, although admittedly I’m not big on his music, so any movie where he doesn’t sing gets a bonus from me. There’s a triple-entendre in the title, since he aspires to be a professional drummer, and is supposedly pretty good when he’s clean. The scene where he auditions for the band is one of the most painful I’ve ever seen.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. While the film today may be considered mild, at the time this was strong stuff. Sinatra and Preminger took chances at the time. His performance still holds up well.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s easy to forget how controversial things were decades in the past – in a world where a film could be Banned in Boston for using the word ‘virgin’ this was quite a move indeed.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I saw the first half of this years ago and had to leave in the middle, thanks for reuniting my brain with a gray memory!

    Seriously, though if Bosley Crother (biggest curmudgeon of the 20th century) could eek out a kind word, it must be a great performance.

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    1. Ah yes, Bosley Crowther, bless him. I think it pained him to say something nice about Frank, but he’s right.

      I hope you get the chance to re-watch this film. I definitely think it needs the Serendipitous Anachronisms treatment (hint hint).

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I watched seven Sinatra films this week for my own centennial tribute to Sinatra and this film wasn’t one of them because I don’t have a copy handy. (I must have a crappy p.d. copy in storage somewhere.) I also wanted to focus on his movie star persona as displayed in YOUNG AT HEART, the Rat Pack films and the Tony Rome films, among others. But I’m glad I read your take on it and am now eager to see GOLDEN ARM again (I can probably find it on YouTube.) Is there any way my piece can be linked to the Sinatra blogathon? I’m not in touch with its sponsors. Here’s a link:
    https://briandanacamp.wordpress.com/2015/12/12/frank-sinatra-centennial/

    Thanks.

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  7. I challenge anyone who has an unfavorable impression of Old Blue Eyes’ acting ability to watch this movie. He was simply incredible in it. How he must have shocked audiences who, up until then, had never seen such things on the big screen nor in real life, for that matter. An amazing film, all way round. And isn’t that an incredible picture of Kim Novak?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it must have been really shocking to audiences when first released, like you said. When I first saw it, a few years ago, I was kind of shocked myself – because Sinatra gave such a credible performance.

      As for Kim Novak, it seems all photos of her are incredible.

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  8. Sinatra had some challenging roles, and played them to perfection. I haven’t seen this film yet, but I have no doubt Ol’ Blue Eyes will surprise me when I do watch.
    Thanks for the kind comment!
    Kisses!
    Le

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  9. A landmark Preminger film and fine performances by Frank and Kim. I rank right under Sinatra’s best performances: THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, VON RYAN’S EXPRESS, and SUDDENLY. (No FROM HERE TO ETERNITY for me…not for Frank).

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    1. A landmark film is right.It’s one of those films where everything seems perfect – casting, music, script, etc.

      It’s been a while since I’ve seen “From Here to Eternity”. I’ve come across a few people who weren’t thrilled with Sinatra in this film, so maybe it’s time I took another look.

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  10. I wasn’t familiar with this film, but it is now on my must watch list. It sounds heart-breaking, yet I would like to familiarize myself with the issues of drug addition and try to understand it more. I have several friends whose children are struggling with this. It is so sad to watch them go through it. I know it is just a movie, yet if it can help me empathize, I think it would be worth watching. I have not seen a Frank Sinatra movie before, but it sounds like he does an amazing job. Thank for the great review, Ruth!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s admirable that you want to support your friends & their children in this kind of situation. They likely need a good friend to lean on now & then!

      Like you said, this film is heartbreaking – an excellent description, considering Sinatra’s character has so much potential. I hope you get the chance to see it. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

      Like

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