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The Man with The Golden Arm: Based on the book by Nelson Algren


I read The Man with the Golden Arm way back in a college English class. American Literature: Post World War II. Something like that. The novel was written by Nelson Algren, born on this day (March 28, 1909) in 1949, won the National Book Award in 1950 and was made into a film starring Francis Albert Sinatra in 1955.


The main character, Frankie the man with the golden arm is an army vet “with a monkey on his bank’’. He's an addict, a dealer in illegal card games, a wannabe drummer tricked into marriage to the wrong woman. Set in Chicago, on its poverty-ridden streets, revealing a dark underbelly of America in a way unlike the way I was used to seeing our country, I was deeply moved. At the time I was still very much enamored of the British writers ala Dickens or at least the American writers who crossed the pond and gave us their view of the continent, ala Henry James. This ugly America was for my sheltered eyes, a whole new bag.
Frankie Machine had seen some bad ones in his twenty-nine years. But any one of these looked as though all the others had beaten him all night with barrel staves. Faces bloody as raw pork ground slowly in the great city's grinder; faces like burst white bags, one with eyes like some dying hen's and one as bold as a cornered bulldog's; eyes with the small bright gleam of hysteria and eyes curtained by the dull half glaze of grief. These glanced, and spoke, and vaguely heard and vaguely made reply; yet looked all day within upon some ceaseless horror there: the twisted ruins of their own tortured, useless, lightless and loveless lives.

The clock in the room above the Safari told only Junkie Time. For every hour here was Old Junkie's Hour and the walls were the color of all old junkies' dreams: the hue of diluted morphine in the moment before the needle draws the suffering blood. / Walls that went up and up like walls in a troubled dream. Walls like water where no legend could be written and no hand grasp metal or wood. [...] He was falling between glacial walls, he didn't know how anyone could fall so far away from everyone else in the world. So far to fall, so cold all the way, so steep and dark between those morphine-colored walls of [an addict]'s terrible pit.
Essential reading, in my opinion. The novel, shocking and controversial in its day, was acquired for Otto Preminger to direct. While Algren was initially brought out to Hollywood to adapt, he wasn't able to adapt his writing style to a screenplay's tighter demands and was replaced. Preminger and Newman went on to make significant changes to Algren's original story, the film was eventually released as "A Film By Otto Preminger". Algren sued but had to drop the suit because he couldn't afford the legal fees.

Preminger cast Sinatra, earning the singer his first Oscar nomination and cementing his Hollywood street cred. The material was so controversial Preminger released it without seeking the Code of Approval but setting off a firestorm which eventually led to Hollywood being given more leeway to explore through cinema topics that were once taboo. 

You can watch the movie for a few dollars on Amazon and Vudu. I believe I saw the film on a tv screen at some point in my life but I remember very little. Co-starring Kim Novak, Eleanor Parker as Zosch (the phony wheelchair-bound wife) and Darren McGavin as Nifty Louie, sounds like it's worth another look. 



Did you recognize the titles by the great Saul Bass?
What do you think? Worth a look? I'm all ears.

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