Frank Sinatra’s portrayal of a junkie dealer-turned-drummer in The Man With The Golden Arm can make a viewer wonder why Darren Aronofsky bothered with Requiem For A Dream at all. Junkies all have the same story–it’s a tale of degradation, desperation, and dead dreams, and it has only two possible endings, kicking or death. The only thing that makes The Man With The Golden Arm a thrilling drama is the skill with which its characters are drawn.
Sinatra’s Frankie Machine is a dealer, working illegal card games, who returns to his old neighborhood from jail/detox revitalized, ready to throw over his petty-criminal past and become a jazz drummer. This doesn’t sit well with his wheelchair-bound wife, Zosch (Eleanor Parker). A querulous nag, she persistently sands away at his ambitions and his self-esteem, campaigning to keep him enslaved not only to his old boss, but to her as well. His driving put her in the chair, and she’ll be damned if she’s going to let him forget it, or escape her grip. She’s particularly scared because she can see Sinatra moving towards Kim Novak’s Molly, a downstairs neighbor who gives him the encouragement (musical and romantic) that his wife can’t, or won’t.
Sinatra is very convincing as Frankie Machine, particularly when he begins drifting back towards full-blown addiction. Presumably his singing career afforded him plenty of opportunities to observe junkie musicians up close. When he starts to twitch and sweat, to cast himself, panicked, from one side of the street to the other in search of his pusher, Louie (Darren McGavin), it never seems like the overly melodramatic acting of someone who doesn’t know the territory.
McGavin, though, is the center of the movie. He’s a magnetic presence, treating the sale of heroin like a seduction rather than a mere cash transaction. Ever since Milton’s Paradise Lost, the Devil’s had all the best lines; McGavin’s part is the best in the movie, and he knows it. He slides through the frame, half Bela Lugosi and half Snidely Whiplash, dangerous and blackly hilarious at the same time.
As fascinating a character study as this movie is (and, with the exception of a one-note, unfunny sidekick played by Arnold Stang, Golden Arm‘s characters are fully fleshed out), it’s about half an hour too long. There’s enough plot here for two movies at least, and towards the end, the viewer can be forgiven if attention starts to flag. Director Otto Preminger’s stagy angles and long takes sometimes fail to grant the movie’s most dramatic moments their full impact. Still, the vast majority of this movie is better than ninety percent of what’s out there now, and if nothing else, The Man With The Golden Arm proves that drug stories aren’t exclusively the territory of hip, nihilistic ’90s film-school wunderkinder.