Monday, February 27, 2006

Man with the Golden Arm

Probably best known for the role of Nighstalker reporter Carl Kolchak, Darren McGavin, who passed away Sat. had a key supporting role in The Man with the Golden Arm, a film of significant importance in the jazz cinema canon. It was one of the more ambitious attempts by a Hollywood composer, Elmer Bernstein, to integrate jazz into soundtrack scoring. It featured the work of jazz greats like Shorty Rogers and Shelly Manne, who also appear as themselves during an ill-fated audition for Frank Sinatra’s drug addicted jazz drummer, Frankie Machine. That’s a scene I’ve actually used in several SCPS classes.

Ultimately, the sum of Golden Arm’s parts is greater than its whole. McGavin himself is effectively creepy in key scenes, luring Sinatra back into heroin use. However, he looks more like a country squire in his three-piece tweeds, than a drug pusher. At the time Golden Arm’s ambition was to be a shockingly realistic look at drug addiction, but now it seems dated. If you’ve seen Travolta pop a syringe of adrenaline through the OD’ing Uma Thurman’s sternum in Pulp Fiction, Golden Arm is likely to strike you as a bit white-washed. Ozzie & Harriet with smack. Yet there are fine elements, like the music and Sinatra’s performance, which mixed desperation with dignity. Unfortunately, it reinforced the general public’s association of jazz with drugs, which sadly had a very real basis in reality for too many artists in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Man with the Golden Arm demonstrates a film may be flawed in its execution, yet remain important over time.