Sunday, April 20, 2008

Jazz Score: Man with the Golden Arm

A jazz musician suffering from drug addiction—imagine such a thing. Yet that is the subject of Otto Preminger’s Man with the Golden Arm (partial trailer here, dig the Saul Bass design). Based on Nelson Algren’s novel, Arm is a mixed bag, distinguished by its music and Frank Sinatra’s performance as Frankie Machine, the man with an arm for drumming that he abuses with a needle.

Arm had a reputation at the time for being brutally frank in its depiction of addiction, and Sinatra does indeed deliver in those scenes. Machine has just returned from taking the cure in Lexington, but he now must face all the same old problems and temptations. His wife Zosh pretends to be confined to a wheelchair to exploit Machine’s guilt over their fateful accident. Louis the pusher immediately pursues Machine, both as a customer and as a card dealer in his associate’s illegal card games, where Machine’s arm was first dubbed golden.

As part of his treatment, Machine learned to play drums. With the help of a reform-minded agent, he hopes to find better employment for that golden arm. Ironically, life on the road with jazz musicians is portrayed as an escape from the temptation of drugs.

Arm tries strives for realism, but sometimes looks odd in retrospect. The mean streets of Chicago look more like an old-fashioned neighborhood. Darren McGavin is effectively creepy in keys scenes, as he tries to lure Machine back on the needle again, but dressed in his jacket and vest, with handkerchief and umbrella in tow, he looks more like a villain from 1920’s England than the mean streets of 1950’s Chicago.

Elmer Bernstein’s score was the first jazz-influenced soundtrack to be nominated for an academy award. Full of foreboding, yet still swinging, Arm is the prototypical sound of what would come to be dubbed “crime jazz.” It features West Coast jazz greats Shorty Rogers and Shelly Manne, who even appear as themselves during Machine’s ill-fated audition.

If you have seen Travolta pop the syringe full of adrenaline through Uma Thurman’s sternum in Pulp Fiction, Arm might seem a little tame overall. However, when Machine kicks cold turkey, it is pretty serious stuff, even by today’s standards. The film honestly represents some of Sinatra’s best screen work.

According to Chris Fujiwara’s The World and Its Double, Preminger notoriously rubbed Algren the wrong way and took great liberties with the screen adaptation. By cutting the class-warfare elements and giving the film a redemptive conclusion, Preminger actually made the film more relevant to more people. It screens as part of MoMA’s Jazz Score series April 26th and 27th.