Frank Sinatra and Eleanor Parker are not among my favorite film stars; normally, both are emotionally thin, morose, depressive—in Sinatra’s case, even in romantic musical-comedies. But, giving their finest, most compelling performances, they are terrific as Frankie and Zosch Machine, the newly ex-con/struggling ex-druggie and his wheelchair-bound manipulative wife, in separate quarters in a southside Chicago tenement, in The Man with the Golden Arm, from Nelson Algren’s novel. How did these actors come to be so good here? Two words: Otto Preminger. The flamboyant producer-director, who challenged Hollywood’s straight-laced production code by dramatizing a poker dealer in the throes of renewed heroin addiction, gave sensitive attention to his cast, drawing fine performances, additionally, from Darren McGavin as pusher Louie Fomorowski, Robert Strauss as gambling boss Schwiefka and, above all, Arnold Stang as tragicomic Sparrow, who loyally cleves to Frankie, whom he hero-worships, and who explains to the police, “You know, I don’t have all my marbles.” Alas, Preminger could do nothing with Kim Novak, the insipid actress who plays fastidious b-girl Molly Novotny, who also is loyal to her Frankie, who now dreams of being a jazz band drummer. Understandably, Zosch dismisses Molly as a “tramp.”
Preminger is at his best conjuring the seedy atmosphere of this black-and-white film (which Algren, incidentally, hated); it is a twisted nerve jangling a sordid environment. The studio-bound sets serve the interests of Preminger’s brilliant mise-en-scène: crummy rooms from which the oxygen seems to have been sucked out. An inevitable murder is inevitably ascribed to Frankie, who is tossed like scrap newspaper in concentric circles of hell. Is any exit possible, any freedom, up ahead?
Sam Leavitt, who would win an Oscar for another black-and-white film, The Defiant Ones (Stanley Kramer, 1958), cinematographed evocatively.
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