Joshua Gizelt (swashbuckler332) wrote,
Joshua Gizelt
swashbuckler332

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"The monkey's not dead. The monkey's never dead. It just sits in a corner and awaits its turn."

Otto Preminger's The Man with the Golden Arm was the first mainstream Hollywood film to take a serious look at drug addiction. There are many aspects of the film that have dated and the finale is a bit too pat to be believable. This film was for its time a searing look into what was a growing social problem, and was made in flagrant violation of the Hollywood Production Code of the time. Nevertheless, the Frank Sinatra's desperate performance (which earned him an Oscar nomination) and Elmer Bernstein's blistering score still command attention.

Sinatra plays Frankie Machine, a small-time poker dealer who has just been released from jail. While in prison, he kicked his heroin habit and learned to play the drums. His hope is to get a job with a band and hopefully raise enough money to cure his wife Zosch (Eleanor Parker), who was apparently incapacitated due to a drunken accident Frankie caused years ago. He doesn't want to deal for his old boss Schwiefka (Robert Strauss), as he fears that returning to that lifestyle will cause him to relapse. Unfortunately for him, this prediction appears to be all too accurate, and between the pressures Zosch places upon him and the distrust of the local police detective Bednar (Emile Meyer), he finds himself losing control of his life. The only people that truly believe in him are his loyal but subservient friend Sparrow (Arnold Stang) and Molly (Kim Novak), a neighbor whom Frankie has had an affair with. Frankie's difficulties in readjusting to the world soon put him at the mercy of the local junk peddler, Louie (Darren McGavin), whose line, "I'll be around," takes on a chilling tone in context.



Preminger's focus with the story is that it isn't just the addiction itself that is the problem, but that the environmental conditions that lead people like Frankie back to the drug. While there are some aspects of the film that come across as naïve today, Frankie's draw to the heroin is made completely understandable despite his best intentions. McGavin is outstanding, making Louie into a well-dressed, sly, sweetly seductive creature feeding upon human weakness. His parasitic relationship to Frankie is one of the film's greatest strengths. The film is very well-done technically as well, with most of the action captured in long, expressive takes shot by Sam Leavitt and the iconic title sequence was by the legendary Saul Bass.

It is impossible to discuss this film without mentioning Bernstein's outstanding score. For one thing, it was one of the earliest film scores that was written in a quasi-jazz idiom, as opposed to only including jazz in a film as source music. Bernstein himself was quick to note that The Man with the Golden Arm is not jazz, which is an improvisatory style, but rather music written to sound like jazz. For another, it works gangbusters in the film. Several of the scenes in which Frankie succumbs to Louie's sinuous charms are conveyed wordlessly, with that driving brass theme - representing the monkey itself - propelling Frankie resignedly forward.

The DVD I saw had two options for the film soundtrack; the original monaural and a remixed stereo track. The latter is a mess, the music is spread haphazardly across the soundfield, an act which robs it of its much-needed punch. There is also a commentary track by Ken Barnes, which had some nice anecdotes, but was also somewhat odd; he mentions this as being "the first jazz score," apparently forgetting Alex North's 1951 work on A Streetcar Named Desire, and he switches the "g" and "d" in the word 'diegetic.' Barnes defends the film's more questionable aspects, including Sinatra's detoxification scene, seemingly forgetting that just because something is possible doesn't make it plausible. These and a few other trivial issues aside, it was a very good commentary, putting the film in the proper historical perspective with regards to the impact on the Production Code and Sinatra and Preminger's careers.

It is a good film, definitely worth seeing for Sinatra, McGavin and Bernstein's contributions. Drug addiction is no longer the contraversial subject matter that it once was, and if cinema has developed beyond this specific movie, it is only because this film made it possible. If the story doesn't have the raw social power that it had upon its release, it still remains an important, groundbreaking work.
Tags: cinema, elmer bernstein, reviews, saul & elaine bass
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