When books get transformed into movies all sorts of things get lost in translation. The two different formats offer completely different forms of story telling and seldom do books light up the silver screen effectively without suffering to some degree. While this movie is pretty good, the differences between it and the novel of the same title by Nelson Algren leave them standing pretty well opposed to one another. This is not to say the movie is bad, but to make this film just like the novel would have been pretty much impossible in 1955 if you wanted the film to actually be released.
Plot: Frankie Machine (played to near perfection by Frank Sinatra) is a down and out heroin addict fresh out of prison, whose card dealing abilites are his star attraction. He comes back to his neighborhood where his disabled wife Zosch has waited for him for six months, with a letter from the rehab doctor assuring him a visit with a man who can get him an audition for drumming with a big band. The only problems in his life are everything and everyone. As his underworld connections gnaw at him and his taste for heroin knocks on the door he must make some tough choices if he's going to make out of the downward spiral of his nobody existence.
Like I said earlier, the plot of this movie differs significantly from the novel. Nelson Algren was initially brought in to write the screenplay (a move which made a lot of sense for a story like this) but was reportedly fired. Director Preminger was infamous for firing people left and right as his working style demanded near constant conflict to harbor his creativity. Needless to say, the final script displeased Algren immensely and he distanced himself, and who can blame him? Almost everything that made his novel unique were either changed around, removed, or completely replaced. Some of them that come to mind are switching Frankie's addiction from morphine to heroin, his age (Sinatra was 39-40 at the time of filming, the character is 27 in the novel), mode of dress, and the manner in which he became an addict which roughly equates to everything about him.
Despite the overarching differences, I think this film is actually very good. The cast is stellar, featuring Sinatra in one of his hands down best roles and some of Hollywoods better character actors/main liners of the day: including a great performance by Darren McGavin the low life drug dealer Louie, Kim Novak as Frankie's former love interest Molly, and Eleanor Parker as Frankie's delierious and manipulative wife Zosch. The care and precision with which the cast must have been chosen really comes through as there's so much tension going on you could almost scrape it off the TV and chew on it. Sinatra even spent time researching recovering addicts in hospitals before filming to get himself prepared for the role. He really got the whole attitude of the serious addict down pat, and as he's in almost every scene in the movie you get plenty of opportunity to view his hard work.
This movie was truly shocking when first released. As a matter of fact it almost didn't get released at all! This was before the now familiar Hollywood rating system had been adopted and instead the censorship board had to give a certificate of approval in order for a film to pass for release. In 1955 this was a truly shocking film and Hollywood had yet to deal with all out drug addiction in this manner, so the censors were somewhat less than pleased. Preminger refused to give in to their demand for cuts, (which would have completely castrated the movie) and the public got more and more curious. The film finally opened and was a huge hit, undoubtedly much to the chagrin of the censors and indeed caused by the hullabaloo that they themselves helped create.
I think it's the addiction angle and how it is done that might turn a lot of modern viewers off from this movie. One needs to keep in mind that in 1955 drug use wasn't commonplace in films and wasn't even hinted at on television like it is in countless police and courtroom dramas today. This was truly a brave film effort by everyone involved, and it paved the way for open discussion about drug addiction in cinema on a more realistic level. I've been yammering on and on about all the acting and story and I should really show you a clip from the film shouldn't I? I just get myself so excited sometimes...
See me put my money where my mouth is below:
See what I mean? Every character in this movie is a low life scumbag who wants to get away. Kim Novak's performance is especially terrific and she holds her own with Sinatra in every scene they have together. Her acting talent at age 22 is pretty astounding. Frankie's wife Zosch is one of the more interesting and tortured characters in particular. Frankie caused her paralysis shortly after their marriage in a car wreck. She holds her disability (which is much more real in her head than in reality) like a weapon to keep Frankie all to herself failing to realize that she only propels his need for heroin to greater heights.
The film is also memorable for its opening title sequence, which was designed by Saul Bass (who designed the title sequences for Vertigo, North By Northwest, and many others), who created an animated paper cut that slowly transforms from hectic lines criss-crossing the screen to a mutated rendition of a heroin addicts arm. The mood and tension of the film is set before you've seen one second of acting and it's true brilliance at work. Combined with this was a score by Elmer Bernstein featuring jazz sequences by Shorty Rogers And His Giants (I have one of their LP's from this era, it's pretty good). The score is just as frenetic and strung out as the characters are, only calming down here and there for Shorty's west coast jazz (of which he is a central figure in its creation) to come to the front.
The Man With The Golden Arm is a real piece of work, something which serious cinephiles like myself can get real excited over. Many people get put off by "old movies" a lot and that really bothers me. A film's age does not diminish the quality it holds or the workmanship that went into the production. I think people today in many cases lose touch with that, but thankfully people like you and me are still kicking to enjoy something like this because let's face it- they just don't make them like they used to. Just think, I found this in the $5.98 bin at a grocery store! Talk about a diamond in the rough...