The Man with the Golden Arm

The Man with the Golden Arm

When illegal card dealer and recovering heroin addict Frankie Machine (Frank Sinatra) gets out of prison, he decides to straighten up. Armed with nothing but an old drum set, Frankie tries to get honest work as a drummer. But when his former employer, small-time con man Schwiefka (Robert Strauss), and Frankie's old drug dealer, Louis (Darren McGavin), re-enter his life, Frankie finds it hard to stay clean and eventually finds himself succumbing to his old habits.


« L’oeuvre de Preminger est pure beauté. »

Eric Rohmer1


“The fluidity of The Man with the Golden Arm (evident from its impressive opening crane shot, which crosses the street to frame Frankie alighting from a bus, then follows him two blocks to the window of Antek’s bar) reflects the domination over the profilmic that studio shooting affords. It is a domination that Preminger had already begun to renounce, and with which he would dispense altogether, or as much as possible, in Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and the films following it. Like The Moon Is Blue (1953), Saint Joan (1957), and, especially, Porgy and Bess (1959), The Man with the Golden Arm is in this sense an exception to the main movement of Preminger’s work after his departure from Fox and before Skidoo (1968): an abstract, hermetic film rather than one that involves itself with a reality that exists outside, and for other purposes than, the filmic project. The sets render Algren’s skid row as an isolated and self-contained world, accentuating both its hopelessness and its lack of historicity. This world has no past and no future; it is ready for the bulldozers. The stylization of some of the performances – Robert Strauss’s and Arnold Stang’s, notably – suits this desperate and artificial quality perfectly. Also at work throughout the film is a highly coded ‘realism’, manifested, for example, in the studied intrusions of characters in the backgrounds or on the sides of compositions to whose foreground actions they are ostensibly irrelevant.

Drawn to ever smaller spaces, the film seals itself off, locks itself in. Camera movement in The Man with the Golden Arm tends to define subjective mental states rather than explore the contours and surfaces of an outer world, and it creates a suffocating atmosphere, relentless in its emphasis on the registration of consciousness, as in the repeated track-ins on huge close-ups of Frankie’s eyes. The Man with the Golden Arm is largely a film of faces: scenes are staged as abstracted, displaced encounters among people who face toward the camera from various planes in the same shot. (...) It is a frontal, vertical film, done in repetitive, driving, elastic movements.”

Chris Fujiwara2


“De film opent met een van de gracieuze generieken van de gevierde designer Saul Bass (Preminger zou opnieuw met hem werken voor Anatomy of a Murder): een abstract lijnenspel dat een gestileerde versie van een arm vormt. Dat bijna muzikale visuele spel vormt een perfecte intro voor een prent die ook opgebouwd is als een muziekstuk – met dissonanten en harmonieuze ritmewisselingen die de toon van de film afstemmen op de gemoedstoestand van de gekwelde protagonist. Gestuwd door een agressieve jazz-score van componist Elmer Bernstein, is The Man with the Golden Arm een rusteloze film, die net als het hoofdpersonage Frankie weinig momenten van echte innerlijke vrede lijkt te kunnen vinden. Premingers voorliefde voor een immer beweeglijke camera en complexe lange bewegingen (ter vergelijking, de ASL – average shot length – voor Amerikaanse films in de jaren ‘50 lag rond de 14 seconden, die van Preminger gemiddeld meer dan dubbel zo hoog) zou zijn hoogtepunt vinden in het schitterende Advise & Consent (1962) – een ware les in meesterlijke mise-en-scène – maar ook hier slaagde de cineast er in om ondanks de beperkingen inzake scherptediepte van het nog jonge ‘widescreen’ procedé uitdagende en lange bewegingen in te bouwen die The Man With the Golden Arm een gejaagde energie schenken.”

David Vanden Bossche3


Cristina Álvarez López & Adrian Martin, “The Other Side of the Street,” De Filmkrant, ‘The Thinking Machine’ video essay series, September 2020.

  • 1Eric Rohmer, “Le goût de la beauté,” Cahiers du Cinéma, 121 (1961): 24.
  • 2Chris Fujiwara, The World and its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger (New York: Faber and Faber, 2008), 416-8.
  • 3David Vanden Bossche, “The Man with the Golden Arm (1955),” CINEA, Reeks ‘Anatomie van de Film’, 14 July 2020.
UPDATED ON 30.08.2021