The Man with the Golden Arm
“The Man with the Golden Arm is largely a film of faces….”
Harry Cohn and/or his advisors must have considered Novak’s potential value to the studio as more than primarily sex appeal. While her sexuality was a key factor in Pushover, a film noir, and Phffft, a quasi-sex comedy, the studio already had cast her in Picnic and The Eddy Duchin Story, both of which went into production in 1955. These were big budget films in which greater demands were made on her as a performer. It was the same year Otto Preminger chose Novak for the major role of Molly in The Man with the Golden Arm and agreed to pay Columbia Pictures $100,000.00 for her services. It was the first time Novak worked outside of the Columbia lot. Preminger’s belief in Novak’s ability to play Molly predated the release of Picnic, an indicator of his strong confidence in her acting potential. According to Daniel O’Brien’s The Frank Sinatra Film Guide, Sinatra’s fee was $100,000.00, putting the two actors on the same monetary plane although Novak’s contract salary remained the same.2
Before discussing the film and Novak’s contribution to it, I wish to address what are invariably considered to be fundamental components in a discussion of this once controversial film: Preminger’s refusal to abandon the project when the Production Code Administration (PCA)refused its seal of approval as the film’s subject was drug addiction, an essential component of Nelson Algren’s award winning 1949 novel.
In 1953, Preminger, no longer under contract to 20th-Century Fox, became an independent producer-director and launched his freedom with The Moon Is Blue, a romantic comedy that gained notoriety by having its heroine refer to virginity and pregnancy. When the PCA denied its approval, Preminger decided to release the film without its certification. His action was audacious and contributed to the film’s commercial success and proving that the studios’ censorship codes were no longer iron clad. Preminger followed The Moon Is Blue with Carmen Jones, an adult, all-black musical, another risk-taking project that turned a profit financially and received critical acclaim, including an Academy Award Best Actress nomination for Dorothy Dandridge.
Pushing the limits of the PCA even further, Preminger next chose to film Algren’s novel. Rights to the book were initially bought soon after its printing by the newly formed Roberts Productions as a vehicle for John Garfield; a screenplay was submitted to the PCA but received a rejection and, with the actor’s death in 1952, the project was abandoned. Two years later, Preminger obtained access to it and hired writers to revise the earlier script, but the screenplay also was rejected. Once again, he ignored the PCA’s decision, counting on theatre owners, represented by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), to play the film as he realized that contemporary adult moviegoers were looking for more mature, challenging fare. For an in-depth account of the director’s dealings with both the PCA and the MPAA, I recommend Fujiwara’s excellent book, The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger.3
The Man with the Golden Arm was published in 1949 to great success commercially and critically, winning the National Book Award in 1951.4 The book is conceived as a brutal account of life in a seedy sector of contemporary Chicago whose inhabitants barely survive financially and where everyday life revolves around bars, strip joints, gaming, drugs, and physical violence. Algren’s novel is an example of heightened realism, taking the reader into a prose world of ugliness, brutality, and desperation and, on occasion, providing the interjection of a poetic sensibility through subjective passages that exist independently of characterization. In a sense, the world the book produces are a state of mind, a self-enclosed hostile environment that is inescapable but also has its own internal moments of grace to counter the pain. Algren’s book can be best described as a sustained piece of existential alienation in which human contact and love cannot be sustained.
In Algren’s novel, the destiny of its the three principal characters, Frankie Machine, Zosh, and Molly, is a foregone conclusion: Frankie, who kills Louie early in the narrative, hangs himself; Zosh gradually drifts off into a world of her own; and Molly, who hides Frankie when the police are closing in on him, is sentenced to prison for abetting a criminal. Additionally, the novel is non-judgmental regarding illicit drug addiction. Preminger originally hired Algren to help adapt the novel but from the beginning the two didn’t connect. On meeting Preminger, Algren found the director’s attitude and professional lifestyle off-putting. He felt it would be impossible for someone like Preminger to comprehend his novel’s milieu and its inhabitance. Whereas Preminger, after briefly working with Algren, found the latter “couldn’t “write dialogue or visualize scenes.”5 Walter Newman and Lewis Meltzer were credited with the final script. The film combines the sub-genre of the ‘social problem film’ and the melodrama. Preminger’s film crucially departs from the novel in a several ways: Frankie, in addition to the previously cited elements, is introduced to drugs in the army, wasn’t in a rehabilitation hospital, and never played the drums; Zosh was permanently crippled because of an auto accident; also, there is no upbeat ending. These changes significantly alter Algren’s narrative concept and intentions, but he was naive to think his book as written could be turned into a Hollywood film; furthermore, he totally disregards the fact Preminger chose the high-profile novel to challenge the film’s industry’s longstanding refusal to acknowledge drug addiction in America.
Numerous critics have claimed a serious flaw on Preminger’s part was that he shot the film on studio sets, undermining the project’s ‘realist’ sources. The fact that he didn’t shoot on location has been attributed by him to a lack of funds. Arguably, his decision to stylize the film to the extent he does is in keeping with the book’s depiction of internalized states of existence. Like Algren’s novel, his film is focused strongly on characterization with an emphasis on the subjective without abandoning a degree of objectivity regarding the environment and its impact on personal identity. Although The Man with the Golden Arm employs long takes and a moving camera to produce an objective point of view, the film doesn’t provide the viewer with the moral ambiguity found in such films as Laura, Angel Face and Whirlpool. The film’s connection to the melodrama is enhanced visually through the confined spaces the characters inhabit and psychologically with Louie’s and Zosh’s obsessive connections to Frankie. Both characters are coded as villainous, (Josh, once it’s revealed that she has been deceiving Frankie about being crippled), and accordingly both are dead by the film’s conclusion.
As for the film’s casting, Preminger wanted either Frank Sinatra or Marlon Brando for the role of Frankie Machine. As often recounted, he sent a copy of the script to the agents of each actor and waited for a reply. Within hours, Sinatra’s agent confirmed he wanted the part. Sinatra, receiving an Academy Award the previous year for his supporting role in From Here to Eternity, had become a highly sought-after actor. Between 1954 and 1955, he appeared in six films, ranging from the ruthless killer in Suddenly to The Tender Trap, a romantic comedy. His character in Young at Heart (1954) comes closest to that of Frankie Machine in that he plays a vulnerable but alienated musician/singer who passively accepts his destiny as a failure. In Preminger’s film, the passivity is shown in Frankie’s reactions to Zosh/Eleanor Parker, Louie/Darren McGavin and Schwiefka/Robert Strauss; in each case, Frankie’s life revolves around what these manipulative characters want from him. Sinatra was willing to play up Frankie’s vulnerability; he invests Frankie with a sensitivity that makes him stand apart from his surroundings. His sensibility, as reflected in Frankie’s skills as a jazz musician which connotes freedom and modernity, prevents him from becoming a pitiable figure. Sinatra deservedly received an Academy Award Actor nomination for the performance which I consider to be his finest.
Preminger’s decision to cast Parker as Zosh hasn’t been given much attention. Daniel O’Brien claims she was “… chosen on the strength of her Oscar-nominated performance as a disabled woman in Interrupted Melody (1955),6 which seems a less-than-sufficient explanation for why he chose her for the part. Although Parker appeared in a wide range of films, dramatic roles were her forte. Her performance style was decidedly’ theatrical’, in the mode of her contemporary Susan Hayward, although Parker lacked the latter’s vibrancy and panache. As Zosh, her characterization is consistently intense, compulsive, and desperate; on the other hand, Parker’s Zosh remains an external creation without an inner life. It isn’t until her death scene, and way too late, that the character is momentarily humanized. Arguably, Parker’s somewhat self-conscious performance is out of place when compared with the other principal actors. Aside from the performance itself, she isn’t convincing visually as twenty-three years old; also, her slightly refined accent and demeanor jar with the environment in which she supposedly has grown up.
If Preminger erred in the casting of Parker, his instincts in casting Novak were on the mark. About Novak, with whom he got along with very well, in response to a question on her casting Preminger replied, “She was a warm girl with a great, great wish to please people and make a success…What I didn’t know at the time was that her earlier movies had been dubbed afterwards because she could never get the lines right. I didn’t want to dub. Because she was nervous Sinatra just went through all the takes, like a pro. She just had no self-confidence, none. She’d been treated like a nincompoop, but she’s really quite shrewd. And I knew she was right for the part. She has a sadness inside, just the quality I wanted, and I knew it could come through if we made her feel comfortable.”7 Preminger’s comments address several significant concerns: an insight to Novak’s screen persona/identity, a genuine belief in her as an actor, a desire to give her self-confidence, including an ability to handle line readings without recourse to post-production lip-syncing. Furthermore, he made a point of criticizing the shabby treatment she received at Columbia Pictures.
Preminger’s observation of the ‘sadness inside’ that Novak projects is part of her screen presence and persona and is present in her most memorable performances. It is particularly striking in that Novak, with her beauty and sensuality, conveys an emotional depth which transcends her physical attributes. In The Man with the Golden Arm, in contrast to her previous films, she isn’t glamourized but l remains an alluring presence. Her wardrobe, except for a form-fitting gown she wears when working at the Safari Club, is constricted to several simple outfits and her makeup is less polished than usual, downplaying the movie star image.
In the following paragraphs, I will discuss in detail Novak’s performance in several scenes with Sinatra, but before doing so, I want to set up the narrative context in which they exist. Noted for his mise-en-scène filmmaking, Preminger favors long takes and a moving camera. His stylistic approach is relevant to the film’s narrative construction and its characterizations. After Saul Bass’s visually dynamic abstract credits accompanied by Elmer Bernstein ‘s intense jazz score, the film opens with a medium long shot of a bus arriving in a rundown part of Chicago and stopping to let off a passenger. Frankie, carrying his drums, descends from the bus and proceeds to walk with the camera tracking him in a long take. He looks relaxed and pleased to be back in the neighborhood; walking down the sidewalk, he stops in front of Antek’s, a local bar, and peers into its window. Two cuts occur, a close shot of Frankie looking into the bar; a reverse shot which shows Louie sadistically demanding a crippled man dance for a drink which he holds out to him. With a cut back to Frankie as he enters the bar, another long take begins with the introduction of Sparrow/Arnold Stang, an eager-to-please, devoted but powerless friend. A series of long takes follow as Frankie moves from the bar to his apartment building, climbs the stairs, enters the apartment and is reunited with Zosh.
These long takes are fluid and not only establish the perimeters of Frankie’s world but also an environment in which quick transitions occur, from the comforting to the oppressive. With Frankie’s entry into the apartment, short takes, containing camera movement, are used to reflect the insurmountable tension produced because of their respective needs. The film suggests that Frankie, at least on a conscious level, tries to relate to Zosh but his behaviour around her implies otherwise. He retains a physical distance from her and quickly loses his patience with her stories about being on her own. Ignoring Zosh’s cake-cutting celebration, Frankie abruptly leaves the room to telephone an agent who might get him an audition as a drummer. On the entry landing, Frankie, awaiting a response to his call, meets Johnny/John Conte who, in turn, is waiting for Molly to come out of her first floor room. When she appears, the camera moves in for a two shot of Molly and Frankie, with her stopping behind him to say, “Hello Frankie”, to which he replies,” How have you been, Molly?” After answering “alright”, she adds, referring to Johnny, “A guy I met when you were away.” As played by Sinatra and Novak, this exchange signals their previous intimacy and the significance of his return. The conciseness of the exchange counters the awkwardness of Frankie ‘s reunion with Zosh where words were a mere pretense of communication. Preminger’s economy in handling the Frankie-Molly meeting enhances the unspoken feelings they have for each other. Sinatra and Novak are completely in touch with what Preminger asks of them in playing the scene.
The extent of the relationship is revealed several scenes later when Frankie seeks out Molly at the Safari Club where she works as a bargirl. The scene consists of ten shots beginning with the use of a long take and a moving camera as Frankie searches for her. He finds Molly in a somewhat secluded area behind a column which she leans against while conducting a dice game on a small, raised table in front of her. Using three long takes and eight shots, which feature close two shots, shot-reverse shots, Preminger slowly builds an intimate dialogue exchange. The dialogue confirms they have had a close connection before his time in rehab without specifying its precise nature. What is clearly communicated is a strong mutual physical attraction to each other. A pivotal moment occurs when a two shot is interrupted by Johnny who wants to borrow money from Molly. The shot triggers a conversation initiated by Frankie on the impossibility of their future together because of Zosh’s helplessness. After telling Molly he isn’t going to see her anymore, Frankie says, “You understand”, to which she answers “Sure. Sure I understand”; Frankie continues “You’re a good girl, Molly” and she responds with “Sure. Real good.” As he’s about to leave, Frankie gently rubs his hand on her bare shoulder. During this discussion, Molly has turned her head away from Frankie’s face, slightly raising it as she looks off into the distance. The shot concludes with a lingering dissolve on Molly’s pensive face.
The scene is one of the film’s finest moments. Preminger takes great care in the staging and cutting of each shot. Aside from establishing the importance of Molly’s impact on Frankie’s redemption, the scene illustrates the emotional fragility of their relationship. The delicate handling of the encounter brings a new dimension to the narrative, which has been so far totally devoid of tenderness. Remarkably, Preminger creates this personal dialogue exchange in the context of mundane surroundings; as jazz music continues to play, we see glimpses of the clientele and the strippers on stage in the background of several shots.
If the scene is to be fully effective, it depends on the actors’ performances. The combination of succinct dialogue, long takes, and close ups demand that the actors react to one another through looks and indirect glances as they emotionally reveal themselves. Sinatra and Novak appear to be genuinely listening to each other and, as characters, are seeking the words to express their underlying feelings. Novak, through her subtle facial expressions but controlled demeanor, is especially touching. While both Frankie and Molly are cautious about making a commitment, the scene is essentially Novak’s as Molly is more in touch with her life and the reality of the situation at hand. Molly has made a commitment to Johnny and knows he counts on her. He needs someone to care about him and she fully understands.
Apart from a brief scene in which Molly visits Zosh to plead that she clear Frankie’s name as a possible suspect in Louie’s death, Novak’s scenes are restricted to Molly’s encounters with Frankie. These scenes, beginning with their initial Safari Club reunion, include: 1) Antek’s bar, where she encourages Frankie to telephone the agent who may get him a job as a professional drummer; 2) a street scene of the two window shopping after Frankie joins the musician’s union; 3) Molly, in the early morning, returning to her hotel room from the Safari Club to find Frankie practicing on the drums; 4) Frankie appearing at the Safari Club in a drug-induced state, leading to Molly’s abandoning of him; 5) Molly confronting Frankie to go cold turkey to kick his drug habit, and its aftermath. Each of these scenes involves positive steps in Frankie’s salvation and function as a counterpoint to the negative consequences of his dealings with Zosh, Louie and Schweifka. Of the above-mentioned scenes, the first and the second are particularly revealing in showing the evolution of the couple’s relationship.
The window-shopping scene, a long take shot, functions as a moment in which the two characters’ step outside their confined lives and drab surroundings. The location suggests downtown Chicago where Frankie has just picked-up his musician’s union card. It begins with a long distance shot of Molly walking screen left ward towards the Musician’s Union Building; as she does, the camera moves closer to her and, at the building’s entrance, Frankie joins her. After briefly stopping, the camera continues to move left while tracking in closer, while in the background large windows showcase expensive middle-class items. Quickly moving past a display featuring a sleek car, they stop at a window featuring a domestic scene. Gradually moving in closer, the camera now frames Frankie and Molly in a shoulder-and-head image with them directly facing the display while the camera has become stationary. The actual window frame of display has been eliminated. The scene depicts a fully equipped modern kitchen which contains a well-dressed male and female mannequins contentedly enjoying a stress-free evening as the husband reads his newspaper while his wife happily prepares dinner. The display, not seeming initially relevant to the film, in fact functions as a means by which Frankie and Molly are able to call attention to its commercialized and mechanical portrait of shared affection and love. Taking the display as a point of departure, the two go from playfully questioning its phony sentiments and projecting onto the image a narrative in which the couple move from the sterile kitchen to a romantic evening alone together. To Frankie’s “Now, how about you and I stepping out tonight after we eat?” Molly replies ‘Why don’t we just stay home? Turn on some music…”, to which Frankie says, “Yeah, I like that better”, as he moves closer to Molly and gently kisses her on the cheek. Frankie comments as they begin to exit the frame: “We’ll just stay home and turn on some music.” There follows a dissolve to a closeup of Zosh drinking a cup of coffee as she awaits Frankie’s return with news regarding his poker playing commitment to Louie and Schweifka.
The pleasure of the above-mentioned scene derives in part from seeing Frankie and Molly relaxed and enjoying themselves. From a technical point of view, Preminger’s elegant and deceptively simple looking long take functions as another indication of the sensitivity he invests in depicting the relationship. Finally, the scene again illustrates the strong rapport Sinatra and Novak have as they project a genuine delight in collaborating on a fantasy narrative in keeping with the characters’ desires.
As Chris Fujiwara remarks in his book, Preminger, in numerous films, creates a self-enclosed narrative world (for example, Laura) that is populated by characters who are driven by barely contained obsessions; with a film such as Advise and Consent, his canvas is vast, as are the number of characters inhabiting it. In The Man with the Golden Man, with few exceptions, such as the above-mentioned window-shopping scene or Frankie’s audition, the action is confined to a narrow strip in a seedy urban area. Within that world, living spaces are primarily a room which is small, dingy and claustrophobic. Yet the director’s mise-en-scène breathes life into such a room. An excellent illustration of this is seen in his staging of Frankie and Molly’s early morning conversation in her room which Frankie uses to practice on the drums. The scene begins with a fluid crane shot of Molly leaving the Safari Club, walking across an intersection to reach the steps of a building’s entrance; as she begins to climb the stairs, the shot continues with a left pan to an open window in which Frankie is seen at his drums as the camera tracks into the room as Molly enters it. Its gracefulness sets the tone for what follows.
In the next shot, with both characters in the room, Preminger continues to use camera movement as Molly goes through her routines of undressing and preparing for bed. As the camera moves with her as she walks towards a dressing screen to remove her dress, a mirror is seen on the wall above the screen. With her back to the camera, she begins to undress while talking to Frankie with her upper body and face reflected in the mirror. The image, in addition to producing an illusion of a more space within the room, allows the conversation to occur without cutting back and forth between them. Again, Frankie and Molly are enacting a domestic scene in which each enjoys the other’s company. Frankie, feeling satisfied but still energized after having a night of practicing on the drums, is relaxed and Molly, although tired, engages with him. As she begins to unwind and lies down on a cot, Frankie tells her about how he got involved with drugs and claims his future career as a drummer will free him from his past life. The low-key scene is notable as it’s based on the empathic bond they share. When Frankie realizes that she has dosed off, he covers Molly with her coat and then, lies back in an armchair covering himself. Frankie’s gesture is an act of love. The scene’s poignancy derives from its execution, the dialogue, and the actors’ performances.
The future of the Frankie-Molly relationship is jeopardized when Molly discovers that Frankie, who has claimed he’s through with drugs, is stoned as he enters the Safari Club. Angry with him, she literally walks out of his life, relocating in another part of the surrounding area. Shortly after, Louie is murdered, and Frankie becomes the prime suspect. On the run, he tracks down Molly and pleads with her to give him money for another fix before turning himself in to Captain Bednar. Molly refuses and argues he needs to get off drugs before facing the police. She verbally assaults Frankie, telling him to face up to the ordeal or he will be convicted and die; furthermore, she offers her support to help him through the experience. The encounter, which leads to the harrowing depiction of Frankie’s withdrawal from the drugs, is the most theatrically charged of the actors’ scenes together. Tom Santopietro8 cites the scene to claim Novak lacks the expressive ability to be creditable as an actor; and, by implication, is a liability to the film as she can’t project the pent-up anger Molly directs towards the self-pitying Frankie. His outright dismissal of Novak as an actor is unjustified as Novak’s performance here is in keeping with her realization of the character. She hasn’t been conceived as an essentially dynamic presence. Molly is a strong-willed, aware woman; but, as she tells Frankie, in an earlier scene, when he suggests they might have the relationship they want one day, “All my life has been one day. On and on and on.” She speaks her lines in a matter-of-fact manner, not as a burden she is carrying.
Both Novak and Sinatra give nuanced naturalistic performances. In the above-mentioned scene, soon after Frankie arrives, Johnny knocks on Molly’s door with news about him; Molly, unprepared for his arrival, prevents him from entering the room. Novak’s face, shot in close-ups, conveys the pressure on Molly to keep Johnny from entering and finding Frankie. Her look of concentration in dealing with the momentary intrusion vividly conveys her thought process. In narrative terms, the brief incident isn’t essential, but the conviction Novak brings to it is resonated in the following scenes. As for Sinatra’s performance, some critics have speculated, perhaps rightly so, that he received an Academy award nomination for ‘cold turkey’ scenes. Shot as several long takes, Sinatra’s sustained emotional intensity and physicality is riveting and highly effective. Equally, the performance is impressive in its subtlety. For example, Sinatra’s work with Darren Gavin’s Louie features moments that are finely judged. I am thinking of a long take shot in Atek’s bar. Frankie and Louie are sitting at the bar, each having a beer, with Louie suggesting he’s available if Frankie needs a fix. Frankie rejects the offer but, as the shot continues, it becomes evident that a seduction is taking place. Frankie’s increasing attraction to the idea is fueled by Louie’s seduction and his casual offer to take Frankie to his place. The shot ends with both men getting up and beginning to walk over to Louie’s room which is across the street. As Bernstein’s music effectively intensifies the moment, Frankie’s ambiguous relation with Louie is more compelling than that of his one-dimensional relationship with Zosh.
The Man with the Golden Arm hasn’t received the critical consideration it deserves. The film belongs to a transitional period for Preminger, 1953-1957, during which he shot four films: The Moon Is Blue, The Court-Marital of Billy Mitchell, The Man with the Golden Arm, and Saint Joan. The films were made on relatively small budgets with The Man with the Golden Arm being both the most successful critically and financially. While the film achieved Preminger’s goal of dealing with one of the PCA’s major forbidden topics, the film disappointed numerous auteur critics who felt it lacked the stylistic fluidity and moral ambiguity found in his best films. Furthermore, as I have mentioned previously, the film was shot on studio sets leading to a claim that The Man with the Golden Arm had a stagey theatrical look which didn’t suit its ‘realist’ subject matter. As with The Court-Marital of Billy Mitchell and Saint Joan, the film is primarily restricted to the confines of enclosed spaces. In discussing Preminger’s mise-en-scène, I have stressed that technically the material is far from a stationary recording of individual scenes on sound stages. He exercises discipline and intelligence in the staging of scenes so that movement occurs within the proscribed space of a location. As a visual experience, The Man with the Golden Arm isn’t what could be considered a static film.
The film also been accused, on realist grounds, of saying that Frankie can conquer his addiction by going ‘cold turkey’. While it is conceivable some viewers might have read it as such, the film doesn’t make this claim. Preminger’s emphasis is on Frankie’s need for support and a reason to even consider rehabilitation. In the climate of the mid-1950s America, drug addiction wasn’t a familiar topic to the public. In this light, the film’s ‘happy ending’ is worthy of consideration. On a narrative level, the film begins with Frankie return to his previous life as an addict and ends with him and Molly leaving that environment as they exit off screen walking forward as a couple. Contrary to expressing relief or confidence, the serious look on Frankie’s and Molly’s faces implies their future is an unknown.
The Man with the Golden Arm makes a powerful statement on the destructiveness of drug addiction and, to a significant extent, does so through the skilled performances of Sinatra and Novak. Both play damaged characters who manage to retain their dignity in surroundings that are indifferent to human worth. Considering the rapport they display, it’s most unfortunate that their reteaming in Pal Joey squandered their onscreen chemistry. In contrast, Godard’s idea of casting them both in Contempt had great potential.
1 Chris Fujiwara, The World and It’s Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger, (New York: Farber and Farber, Inc., 2008): 196
2 Daniel O’Brien, The Frank Sinatra Film Guide, (Frome and London: Butler & Tanner Ltd, 1998) :85
3 Fujwara : 183-197
4 Nelson Algren, The Man with the Golden Arm (New York: Penguin Books, 1977)
5 Foster Hirsch, Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007) p 237
6 O’Brien: 86
7 Hirsch: 240-241
8 Tom Santopietro, Sinatra in Hollywood (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008) Thomas Dunne Books: