Movie Review: The man with the golden arm

I have seen this film so many times. It is arguably the best performance Frank Sinatra ever played in his whole film career. The Man with the Golden Arm is a 1955 American drama film, based on the novel of the same name by Nelson Algren, which tells the story of a heroin addict who gets clean while in prison, but struggles to stay that way in the outside world. It stars Frank Sinatra, Eleanor Parker, Kim Novak, Arnold Stang and Darren McGavin. It was adapted for the screen by Walter Newman, Lewis Meltzer and Ben Hecht (uncredited), and directed by Otto Preminger.

It was nominated for three Academy Awards: Sinatra for Best Actor in a Leading Role, Joseph C. Wright and Darrell Silvera for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White and Elmer Bernstein for Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture. Sinatra was also nominated for best actor awards by the BAFTAs (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) and The New York Film Critics.


The film was controversial for its time; the Motion Picture Association of America refused to certify the film because it showed drug addiction. The gritty black-and-white film uniquely portrayed heroin as a serious literary topic as it rejected the standard “dope fiend” approach of the time. It was the first of its kind to tackle the marginalized issue of illicit drug use. Because it dealt with the taboo subject of “narcotics,” Hollywood’s Production Code refused to grant a seal of approval for the film, and it was released without the MPAA’s seal of approval. This sparked a change in production codes, allowing movies more freedom to more deeply explore hitherto taboo subjects such as drug abuse, kidnapping, abortion and prostitution. In the end, the film received the code number 17011.
Director Otto Preminger previously had released a film lacking the Production Code in 1953, with The Moon is Blue. He told Peter Bogdanovich why he was attracted to Algren’s novel. “I think there’s a great tragedy in any human being who gets hooked on something, whether it’s heroin or love or a woman or whatever.”

Frank Sinatra — who jumped at a chance to star in the film before reading the entire script — spent time at drug rehabilitation clinics observing addicts going cold turkey. The script was given to Marlon Brando around the same time as Sinatra, who still harbored some anger at Brando, since the latter had beaten out Sinatra for the lead role in On the Waterfront.

There is a very strong overtone of how it feels to be an addict in this film. Frank really plays the part well. The observation of cold turkey’d addicts was most likely the key to his flawless portrayal of such. You can honestly feel the pain and struggle demonstrated in Frank’s performance.

I was thinking while watching the movie about the concept of a modern remake of the film. There are so many modernizations of older films and for the most part, in my opinion they are needed as it helps bridge the gaps between generations. This brings the allure of having a father/son, mother/daughter experience of “I watched the original in theaters when I was your age”. This opens the door to sharing time with your children or parents watching each generations antecedent or post adaptations of the film. But with this film, specifically I do not think that a modern remake of this movie would be appropriate. Due to when it was made, the topic of drug use was considered to be controversial and rarely shown on screen prior to “The man with the golden arm”.  This film is arguably the first step into edgy film making, pushing the envelope, all the while captivating the audience’s attention with a very close to home real life situatuion.

When this film was made in 1955 we had men just coming back from being in the Korean conflict. We also had our nation’s greatest generation living in their GI Bill purchased homes raising their families the best that they knew how, though 10 years later still fighting the war. Fighting the war no longer on the beaches, bluffs, islands, coves, and or trenches across foreign evergreen war torn terrains, but rather here at home, in the beaches, bluffs, islands, coves, and or trenches within their own minds. My grand father was one of them. When he came home after serving 4 years in the European WWII theater, he drank like a fish. If he didn’t come home with a black eye, blood stained shirt, or bruised knuckles, you would wonder what went wrong. Although his drug of choice was the bottom of a bottle, most veterans of the last world war were not so lucky. Just like the Vietnam war that preceded WWII about 20% of all servicemen were addicted to narcotics even after coming state side. Most not by choice.

There are a few reasons why they became addicted. The main reason was medical resources, or lack their of. Soldiers who were injured and required relief for their wounds, were given morphine, meth, and other opiates. Soldiers who were on a pain management regiment once healed, were not weened off the drugs. Most were sent home or back to the front lines as addicts.

Drug use in World War II is easily the most institutionalized in recorded history. This was especially true for German military. The drug of choice for the German army was a methamphetamine designed to keep soldiers alert and functional for several hours/days. 35 million tablets of methamphetamine were shipped to the army and air force between just April and July 1940 alone. These meth-amphetamines were later banned in 1941 under the Opium Law but despite the ban a shipment of over 10 million tablets was sent to soldiers later that year.

The use of alcohol was also encouraged by the military. Alcohol became a crutch for many of the men serving at the time. This prevalent and habitual use of alcohol led to many otherwise preventable deaths and injuries. Production of bootlegged alcohol became a serious issue as many producers didn’t know the difference between consumable alcohol and methyl alcohol. Men who consumed spirits made with methyl alcohol became blind or succumbed to fatal alcohol poisoning.

Soldiers who experienced intense battle, became addicted to the acute adrenalin rush they would get in the heat of war battles. So once they returned to their lives stateside, it was pretty boring, and they craved that same rush. As a result vets who returned home without a drug addiction often resorted to street drugs to satisfy their need for a high.  Most users were closet users. Most men with addictions you would not know had one. This is because the drug of their choice would bring them to a mental level of which would allow them to act their normal selves. It would be the withdrawal of the drug that would change their personality. Much like during Frank Sinatra’s character’s episode of withdrawal where he told his girlfriend who he loved that he would kill her if she didn’t allow him to exit the room she kept him in to ride out his withdrawal symptoms.

If you have not seen this movie, it is a must see! Even though it is 57 years old it still addresses a situation that is still very real and large part of our civilization today.It is one of my favorite movies starring Sinatra. I believe that this was his best film. So please watch it and send me a comment and let me know what you think.

If you have an addiction to any substance or know someone who is and would like help, please go to www.drugabuse.gov   or www.drugabusehelp.com They have a number of resources and guides to help in your local area. Someone is there to help. Don’t try to take it on by yourself. You are not alone.

Thanks for reading,

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Doug, You handle words as adroitly as a master mechanic handles his tools. Great film review.

    Chet


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