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TNR Film Classic: ‘The Man With the Golden Arm’ (1956)

The first thing to say about The Man With the Golden Arm is that one ought to see it before and not after reading the novel by Nelson Algren on which it is based. The film is a pretty good picture show, as we used to say, but anyone who has read Nelson Algren’s wonderfully poetic novel is likely to make invidious comparisons and be otherwise distracted, particularly when the film strives to narrow itself to a problem of drug addiction. Those episodes in which it is a problem film make it resemble The Lost Week-End and The Blackboard Jungle and they are interesting enough. But the difference between a problem film, play or novel and the real thing is immense: any particular problem, however serious, may be vanquished overnight while the problem of being a human being is here to stay.

Since Algren’s novel, like all genuine tragedies, does not depend upon a knowledge or ignorance of the plot, no future reader’s experience can be diminished by saying that the novel ends with the hero’s death and this is in direct contrast to the film which, in a way, has no ending at all, happy or unhappy: Sinatra as the hero and Kim Novak as his girl friend just walk off, and, as in a Chaplin film, one can choose to believe whatever one like or dislikes about their future together. One can suppose that they will move forward to a ranch-type house in the suburbs or that they will fail again and again in their desperate efforts to escape from the metropolitan suburb in which the lost and the damned are lost and damned, because as someone writes on the wall of a jail “We’re all victims of circumstances.”

Frank Sinatra’s performance is so good and he has been so good in almost every role since From Here To Eternity that something special must be said about his acting. It must be at least fourteen years since he was the crooner whom the bobby-soxers adored because he looked so frail and seemed to need someone to mother him. He not only has stopped looking frail in most of his parts, but he looks like a human being who never had a mother, never needed one, and views mothers and crooners with unprintable scorn. There are a few somewhat coy references to bobby-soxers in The Man With the Golden Arm, but the important thing is that Sinatra clearly prefers the hard work of being a genuine actor to that of being a crooner or a Hollywood star.

As the film version of a really first-rate novel, The Man With the Golden Arm is another instance of one of the permanent questions of film-making, the relationship of the literary text to the scenario and the film itself. This is how the novel begins:

The Captain never drank. Yet, toward nightfall in that smoke-colored season between Indian summer and December’sfirst true snow, he would sometimes feel half drunken. He would hang his coat neatly over the back of his chair in the leaden station-house twilight, say he was beat from lack of sleep and lay his head across his arms upon the query-room desk.

Yet it wasn’t work that wearied him so and his sleep was harassed by more than a smoke-colored rain. The city had filled him with the guilt of others; he was numbed by his charge sheet’s accusations. For twenty years, upon the same scarred desk, be had been recording larceny and arson, sodomy and simony, boosting, hijacking and shootings in sudden affray: blackmail and terrorism, incest and pauperism, embezzlement and horse theft, tampering and procuring, abduction and quackery, adultery and mackery. Till the finger of guilt, pointing so sternly for so long across the query-room blotter,had grown bored with it all at last and turned, capriciously, to touch the fibers of the dark gray muscle behind the captain’s light gray eyes. . .

Films have been based so often upon literary texts that one can hardly doubt some natural affinity which attracts directors and producers to works of literature. This has been true not only of the films produced by Hollywood, but of German, French, Italian, and English films as well.

The French films based upon Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, and The Eternal Husband provide one kind of example. So does the German version of The Brothers Karamazov and Hollywood’s version of The Grapes of Wrath. Some important quality is bound to be lost but often enough something important is gained also: sometimes it is heightened visual sense of the work of fiction; at other times it is a new awareness of the meaning of the written work. What happens at best is comparable to reading a critical essay about a great work of fiction, or looking at the prints and drawings of the time and place which the novelist used as the milieu. As long as the film does not become a substitute for the real thing (apparently the opposite is what occurs most of the time) no serious harm occurs and the entire process can be regarded as an extension of the art of translation. If life were long enough for all of us to learn all the languages in which masterpieces have been written, there would be no justification for translation:in a like way, those who insist on “pure cinema” would be entirely right if every film based upon an original scenario were an example of pure cinema or if the filming of works of fiction prevented, diminished or interfered with the art of the film. And the purists are certainly right to insist that the film version of an important work of fiction is, at best, another example of a mixed genre, like opera.

In The Man With the Golden Arm, a great deal more might have been accomplished solely by training the camera more often upon the Chicago slum which is the real villain of Algren’s novel. And a great deal more of the profound and tragic poetry of the novel might have been carried over to the screen by employing that familiar ghost,the unseen narrator, uttering the burden of Algren’s eloquent prose.

This article originally ran in the February 6, 1956, issue of the magazine.