(director: Otto Preminger; screenwriters: Walter Newman/Lewis Meltzer/Ben Hecht/based on the novel by Nelson Algren; cinematographer: Sam Leavitt; editor: Louis R. Loeffler; music: Elmer Bernstein; cast: Frank Sinatra (Frankie Machine), Eleanor Parker (Zosch Machine), Kim Novak (Molly), Arnold Stang (Sparrow), Darren McGavin (Louie), Robert Strauss (Schwiefka), John Conte (Drunky); Runtime: 119; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Otto Preminger; United Artists; 1955-B/W)

“It’s a film that had a monkey on its back.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The “golden arm” of the title refers to the film’s protagonist being a professional poker card dealer. Otto Preminger (“Laura”/”Saint Joan”/”Exodus”) helms this spruced-up version of Nelson Algren’s controversial best-seller tale about an addict, that lacks imagination or any surprises or really gives one a fix on the addict. It was daring for its time only because it defied the Hays Code and became the first major Hollywood film on heroin addiction. For its defiance, the Hays Code refused to give it a seal of approval. But United Artists released it anyway and it became commercially successful.

Though the black-and-white film is clinical in its probe on addiction, there are too many scenes depicting the social milieu of the drug user/pusher that are conceived by those who are square to the hipster scene. It’s clumsily written by Walter Newman, Lewis Meltzer and Ben Hecht. Upon its release, its cold turkey sequence caused a sensation but nowadays seems quite mild. Almost everyone in the film is miscast except for the star, Frank Sinatra, who makes for a convincing junkie. The most miscast member is Eleanor Parker, an Otto brainstorm to have her as a harpy crippled that blew up in his face.

Frankie Machine (Frank Sinatra), a crooked card dealer for the mob, has just finished a six months sentence in rehab, where he kicked his heroin habit, and returns to his nagging and dependent wheelchair-bound crippled wife Zosch (Eleanor Parker), the result of a car accident, in his slum Chicago neighborhood. He now vows to stay off drugs and get a straight gig as a jazz drummer. Through Frankie’s new secret squeeze, B-girl Molly Kim Novak), he gets an audition on the drums in her joint, but his old boss in the rackets Schwiefka (Robert Strauss) makes him work one last rigged poker game. These pressure to stay a crooked dealer, which is what his greedy wife wants, make Frankie succumb to the temptations of getting wasted, and he hooks up again with the oily pusher man Louie (Darren (McGavin).

Elmer Bernstein provides a fine Oscar nominated jazzy score. Arnold Stang is around for comic relief, as he plays Frankie’s likable mentally challenged loyal flunky sidekick. Novak seems too rigid and out to sea in her bimbo with a heart of gold bar hostess part to be believable. While Parker is just plain abominable and over acts trying to achieve someone to be pitied who is overwhelmed with self-hatred. Preminger’s direction is slick and in sharp contrast to the gritty realism he tried for in his druggie/gambling/jazz social milieu location shots. It’s a film that had a monkey on its back.

The Man with the Golden Arm Poster

REVIEWED ON 12/28/2007 GRADE: C+