One of the first films about drug addiction.

At the time of its release, 1956’s The Man With The Golden Arm was considered truly controversial, dealing with a subject that was until then strictly verboten as big screen source material.

Remember: those were the days when Joseph Breen’s Production Code, not to mention the Catholic Legion of Decency listings, wielded make or break influence in Hollywood front offices.

Arm, based on a Nelson Algren novel and freely adapted by director Otto Preminger, even had a difficult time being released (ultimately it was by United Artists) thanks to executive jitters about its content. To pass muster, the movie was pitched for its “immense potential for public service.” Not exactly the ideal commercial promotion.

Anyway, Frank Sinatra plays a minor league crook who becomes an addict (the drug is not named but it is heroin). After kicking the habit during a Kentucky prison stint our man returns to his wheelchair-bound wife and his seedy North Chicago neighborhood accompanied by  dreams of becoming a musician — a big band drummer.

The movie’s solid cast has Eleanor Parker as the wife, who is less handicapped than initially thought.  Kim Novak (pictured with Sinatra above) is on hand as our man’s old flame, hostess in a strip club. Their affair is soon rekindled. (Arm also boasts of creditable performances from Darren McGavin, Arnold Stang and Robert Strauss.)

The picture does not shy away from tough scenes of cold turkey drug withdrawals and other harrowing mechanics of heroin addiction.  Sinatra, nearly 40 years old when he made the picture, was shot over a six-week period at the old RKO studios from Sept. 26 through Nov. 4, 1955.

It was nominated for three Academy Award including one for Sinatra in the best actor category. Arm is also heralded for its musical score by Elmer Bernstein.  Perhaps more important, the picture prompted a re-evaluation in Hollywood of production codes to allow more forthright treatment of previously taboo subjects — kidnapping, miscegenation, abortion, prostitution and drug addiction.

By the way, The Man With the Golden Arm was a hit both with critics and the box office.  Talk about a happy Hollywood ending.

The BBFC files: The Man with the Golden Arm | BFI


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