Frankie Machine (Frank Sinatra) has just been released from prison. During his time in the big house he successfully kicked his addiction to smack and even learned to play the drums which he got pretty good at. When he steps off the bus back into his old neighborhood everyone seems happy to see him, especially his faithful pal Sparrow (Arnold Stang) who makes his living selling lost dogs to unassuming customers.
Looking to make a fresh start, Frankie plans to take his new found talent as a musician and try to get a job playing in a band. He’s got a golden arm or so they say and he wants to change his stage name to the more classy sounding “Jack Duvall”. After sending Sparrow off to get him some sharp new duds he visits his estranged wife Zosh (Eleanor Parker) who has been confined to a wheelchair following a car crash a few years earlier. Later on while making a call to his prison doctor, Frankie runs into Molly (Kim Novak) his old girlfriend and it’s clear there’s still a romantic spark between them. When Sparrow shows up with his new suit, he and Frankie are arrested because it was reported stolen. They suspect that Schweifka (Robert Strauss) an old acquaintance has set them up as a way to force Frankie to be a dealer for his illegal card games again. When he gets out of the slammer Frankie sets up an audition with a band and tries his best to steer clear of trouble. Soon the people around him and his own brittle psychological state cause him to slowly sink back into a life of hard drug use. To make matters worse, his old dealer Louis (Darren McGavin) is like a devil on his shoulder, ready and waiting to help him out with a fix. McGavin really stands out in the film because of how he was able to become such a despicable, leacherous lowlife.
The role of Frankie Machine was one of the finest roles of Frank Sinatra’s acting career. He gives an outstanding, heartfelt performance as Frankie, a man who is trying to stay on the right path but loses his way because of personal demons that plague him. This was actually one of the first honest portrayals of the desperation and self abuse that drug addicts must endure brought to the big screen. In one of the most famous sequences, Frankie is shown suffering the effects of heroin withdrawl in a startling bit of realism. The film also truthfully shows the dependent relationships addicts have with those who supply them with drugs. Sinatra would go on to play a similar role of a performer with an addictive personality in The Joker Is Wild (1957) based on the life of Joe E. Louis, which fans of this classic film should also take a look at.
The Man with the Golden Arm was shot mostly on soundstages and at the RKO Studios backlot in Hollywood, CA. This gave it much more of an intimacy and helped the story focus directly on all the actors without a lot of peripheral distraction. Due to its controversial subject matter at the time it was made the MPAA refused to give it a rating. This was due in large part to how the movie portrayed addiction with a serious tone and the fact it wasn’t merely an exploitation picture. To keep the integrity of the production intact it was later released without the MPAA’s approval. This breaking of the strict Hollywood rules led to a change in the production codes and opened up the doors for other taboo subjects to be explored without interference which we as film fans should be truly grateful for.
- Marlon Brando was offered the role of Frankie Machine, but Frank Sinatra jumped at the opportunity and was signed before Brando could accept.
- The movie’s poster was as #14 of “The 25 Best Movie Posters Ever” by Premiere.
- Frank Sinatra is mentioned twice in Nelson Algren’s 1949 novel on which the film is based.
- A poster for director Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones is prominently featured on the building across the street from the saloon during the opening scene.
- In a conversation with Robert Osborne, Frank Sinatra Jr. said the hands in the tight shots of Frankie’s second dealing belong to Milton Berle.
- Ray Bradbury turned down offers to collaborate on the screenplay, along with the screenplay for Anatomy of a Murder, which Bradbury claimed was $200,000 worth of work. Bradbury said of the refusal “I don’t give a goddamn about drugs; it bores the hell out of me. I don’t understand the people who take them. So why would I write a screenplay? I’d get a writer’s block immediately.”
Academy Award nominations
Frank Sinatra for Best Actor in a Leading Role
Joseph C. Wright and Darrell Silvera for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration
Elmer Bernstein for Best Music