“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.
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.
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.