Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Tuesday's Forgotten (Or Overlooked) Film or A/V: THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM

Frankie Machine framed, boxed in by his addictions

By this time in the fall, I've usually shifted into Halloween mode, so as a beginning, today's Forgotten Film, The Man With The Golden Arm, is a horror story, from 1950's noir National Book Award winner.  It's about drug addiction long before drug addictions became so popular--but metaphorically, it's about the addictions that can entrap us all.

The needle and the damage done

While there are many older people who consider it a classic, both the film and the Nelson Algren novel upon which it is based are generally treated with benign neglect.  It is a horror film about man's inhumanity to man, of how the powerful exploit the weak,  Those addicted to power and money refuse to accept responsibility for their actions and too many of the poor paid no attention to this cautionary tale.  America the addicted, of thee I sing.

The movie had no place for the novel's epigraph from Russian novelist Alexander Kuprin:  Do you understand, gentlemen, that all the horror is in just this:  that there is no horror.
Kim Novak on the set of The Man With The Golden Arm

Kuprin's stance was against organized prostitution in the face of public complacency and hypocrisy (something Algren would later take on in A Walk On The Wild Side), but the tale reverberates with metaphor.  When the film opens, Frankie Machine (Frank Sinatra), just off the bus,  walks past establishments of temptation and addiction.  He looks in a bar window and sees the wealthy drug dealer making an autistic cripple dance for him, and the patrons of the bar join in derisive laughter.

A good symbolic opening for what lies ahead.  But I think the novel has a much better opening.  The novel puts you into the head of the humanitarian police captain, who sees himself in the foibles of others, whose accusing finger curls around and points back, making him aware of his own complicit complacency, even though he himself is able to steer clear of addictions.  The first sentence of the novel is, "The captain did not drink."

Reminding us of what Mark Twain said about observing the wonderful confidence of a Christian with four aces.

Although not as brave as the novel, the movie shows plenty of gumption.  The drug dealer is marvelously played by a pre-Christmas Story/Night Stalker Darren McGavin.  There's an unforgettable scene where McGavin and Sinatra cross the street together which makes it clear that McGavin plays the monkey on Frankie Machine's back.

Machine is weak.  He automatically finds himself boxed in because he is young and lacks self-awareness, still snarled in the snares of youthful compulsions, and the powerful dealer of addictions takes advantage of that.  The book is genuine noir, while the movie is claustrophobic horror that flirts with noir but I guess the studio would not let Frank as Frankie die.  They opted for a Hollywood ending.

The fine actresses Eleanor Parker and Kim Novak were cast in the film, and they are generally good.  A couple of their scenes are over the top with melodrama and difficult to watch.  Arnold Stang, a dour comedian, was cast as Sparrow, a common denominator.  Humanity, if not God, should note every sparrow that falls.

The special features in the 2-disc 50th Anniversary DVD are delightful.  Among other items, there is a recording of Frank Sinatra singing the title song, and best of all, there is a long interview with Elmer Bernstein who did the great jazzy soundtrack.

Bernstein says that, for a long time, no one would hire him because he was on the McCarthy era blacklist as a dangerous Red.  Asked what he did to deserve that, he said that he wrote a couple of movie reviews for leftist publications.  Is that all?  Yes, in those days, that was all it took--it was crazy.

If Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh get their way, history will be revised and perhaps they will again make villains out of people like Elmer Bernstein.  Not to mention people like Nelson Algren.
This is an adjunct of Todd Mason's Forgotten (or Overlooked) Film or Other A/V series.  For the other selections by many authors and bloggers, see this link.


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