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The Man with the Golden Arm (1956) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

frankie louie molly sinatra

Principal social theme: addiction (heroin)

United Artists. No MPAA rating. Featuring: Frank Sinatra, Eleanor Parker, Kim Novak, Arnold Stang, Darren McGavin, Robert Strauss, John Conte, Doro Merande, George E. Stone, George Matthews, Leonid Kinskey, and Emile Meyer. Written by Walter Newman and Lewis Meltzer based on the novel by Nelson Algren. Cinematography by Sam Leavitt. Edited by Louis R. Loeffler. Music by Elmer Bernstein. Produced and directed by Otto Preminger. B&W. 119 minutes.


The Man With the Golden Arm is noted as the first mainstream American feature film to focus on the issue of drug addition as the central theme. Otto Preminger, whose father was attorney general of the Austrian Empire, was a lawyer who turned to dramatics, working with the legendary director Max Reinhardt. He built a reputation as a brilliant iconoclast who liked to tackle controversial issues, which led to this milestone film. The Man With the Golden Arm pulled no punches, portraying heroin addiction in stark, dramatic terms and setting the standard against which most later films about drugs were compared. Frank Sinatra, his singing career temporarily in eclipse, delivers a masterful performance, which earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor of 1955.


Frankie Machine (Frank Sinatra) returns to his skid row neighborhood after a six-month jail sentence. Frankie is upbeat and enthusiastic to be home, since he has been cured of his drug habit and learned a new trade as a drummer while he was imprisoned. His wife (Eleanor Parker), nicknamed “Zosch,” is crippled due to an auto accident three years ago when her husband was driving drunk. In truth, she has recovered, but continues to use a wheelchair because she fears Frankie would leave her for their neighbor Molly (Kim Novak), a nightclub cashier who is in love with him (and Frankie is in love with her). Zosch tries to discourage her husband’s new career, wishing he would return to his old trade as a house dealer for Schwiefka, who bankrolls a floating neighborhood poker game. Frankie is well regarded as an honest dealer, and is called “The Man with the Golden Arm.” He was originally arrested when Schwiefka’s game was raided, and Frankie is angry that the gambler did not give Zosch a monthly payoff as he promised. Frankie’s best pal is Sparrow (Arnold Stang), a street hustler who steals dogs, bathes them, and returns them to their owners claiming a finder’s fee. The neighborhood drug pusher, Louie (Darren McGavin), tries to offer Frankie a free “hit,” but he rejects it.

Schwiefka arranges to have Frankie arrested on a theft charge (for wearing a jacket shoplifted by Sparrow). The gambler bails him out when Frankie agrees to resume his old job. The pressures of the gambling scene weaken Frankie’s resolve to stay off drugs, and he again becomes addicted. Frankie finally is called for an audition with a professional band. Louie pressures him to operate one last game for Schwiefka after two gamblers with big bankrolls are persuaded to sit in. After winning for the gambler, Frankie tries to quit early. Schwiefka takes over the dealer’s slot himself, but loses. Louie refuses to give Frankie drugs unless he returns to the game, which he does, but he loses and is finally caught cheating. He tries to run away, and Louie bursts into his apartment and discovers that Zosch is able to walk. She shoves Louie down the stairs when he attempts to blackmail her. The police assume Frankie killed the pusher. He hides out with Molly. She helps him kick the drug habit cold turkey. After his cure, Frankie heads back to confront Zosch, telling her he plans to leave. He is stunned to learn she is able to walk. The police show up, and conclude that Zosch is the killer. She runs off when they try to arrest her, falling to her death from the back porch. Frankie, Molly, and Sparrow watch in silence as her body is driven away.


As written, Frank Sinatra’s role as Frankie Machine is not a sympathetic one. He is likable, but with a weak personality very atypical of a Hollywood production. Even the name “Machine” has connotations that undermine his humanity. Frankie is also a bit of a lush, a hustler, and a ladies’ man. Sinatra makes his character seem authentic, not contrived. He is persuasive in portraying the cravings of a heroin addict. The sequence in which he goes cold turkey to kick his addiction is one of the most brutal, intense, and graphic moments of any film of the 1950s. The script also is significant in that it avoids being preachy. Frankie claims he became a junkie “for kicks,” however, the actual reason is more likely to bury his feelings of guilt for having crippled his wife in a car accident. The audience learns early on that his wife is faking to manipulate him, so Frankie’s attachment to Molly is not only tolerated but encouraged by viewers. Like a traditional film noir, Frankie appears trapped by circumstances very early in the plot by the triangle of gambling, alcohol, and heroin. Frankie is also the target of endless manipulations, by his wife, by Louie the pusher, by Schwiefka, by the police, and even by his only pal Sparrow. Only Molly does not seek to pull his strings. The script also shows Frankie troubled by his lack of confidence as a musician. He knows he is only an adequate drummer. His real talent is dealing and overseeing a poker game, but his only avenue is the backroom dive, as any legitimate casino is beyond his scope.

The Man With the Golden Arm can be examined from various angles, as a character study, as an inquiry into the consequences of a poor environment or as a case study of the trap of drug addiction. The production qualities are excellent. The grimy, claustrophobic sets, the stark lighting, and the perceptive editing provide the perfect backdrop for the story. The acting of the supporting cast is first rate and compliments Sinatra in every scene— particularly the performances by Emile Meyer, Kim Novak, and Darren McGavin (whose Louie is one of the great unsung screen villains). Eleanor Parker perhaps steps over the edge in her performance, but she also provides an excellent counterpoint in her scenes with Sinatra. The hard-hitting jazz score by Elmer Bernstein also reinforces each scene. The conclusion is somewhat open ended and could provide opportunity for discussion of whether Frankie and Molly can escape their troubled past. Louie’s assessment that the addict can never completely free himself from the monkey on his back is a sober and memorable line that sticks with the viewer long after the end of the picture.

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