Jan 25, 2020

The Man with the Golden Arm

Nobody, including junkies, wants to watch most films about junkies, unless you have exceedingly excremental taste and can somehow trick yourself into believing there is any sort of truth in regard to the dope fiend lifestyle in senseless swill like Askhenazi pseudo-arthouse poser Darren Aronofsky’s pleb-tier clinical con-job Requiem for a Dream (2000) where the soulless smackhead lifestyle is romanticized in a rather retarded MTV-esque fashon full of debasing hip hop montage masturbation and pathetic plastic histrionics, among other aesthetically bankrupt would-be-artsy-fartsy asininities. Aside from being an absolutely aesthetically atrocious film that test the bounds of feckless art faggotry and too-cool-for-school cultural retardation, the film was clearly directed by someone that has no direct experience with heroin or junkies but of course an authentic portrayal of such human debasement would have never been such a big hit with packs of mindlessly rebellious teenagers and sapless liberal academics. While attempting to do their own best Harmony Korine/Larry Clark impersonation, the Safdie brothers utilized their typical cheap gimmick of poorly disguising autistic trash as provocative art for Heaven Knows What (2014) where they utilized real junkies yet managed to say absolutely nothing new or interesting about the junky experience. While I do appreciate films like Barbet Schroeder’s More (1969), Paul Morrissey’s Trash (1970), Jerry Schatzberg’s The Panic in Needle Park (1971), and Christiane F. – Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo (1981) to varying degrees, none of these films also seem to provide the full junky experience, especially in terms of the vicious circle that comes with full-blown junkydom.  Thankfully, blue-eyed goombah god Frank Sinatra was able to provide the world with a fuller look at the perturbing perils of heroin hell.

 Needless to say, I never expected that a film from the mid-1950s starring alpha-wop performer Sinatra and directed by subversive Austro-American semite Otto Preminger (Bonjour Tristesse, Anatomy of a Murder) would provide in what is my best estimation the full junky experience, at least in a sort of soundly seedy post-noir sense where the most glaring trash on the streets is the people. Indeed, The Man with the Golden Arm (1956)—a film that could not be more immaculately and unforgettably titled—is far from a fun flick as a sort of cinematic equivalent to stale dog shit and old vomit boiling on a hot city sidewalk. In short, the film does what Preminger does best in terms of its hardly covert cynicism, misanthropy, and overall unflattering depiction of humanity; or, in this sad soulless case, subhumanity. In my admittedly counter-kosher yet reasonably artistically fair opinion, Preminger—an Austrian Jew that was oftentimes described as an ‘Nazi’ by collaborators due to his cold and sadistic authoritarian character (not to mention his strange fetish for playing Nazi characters, most famously in fellow chosenite Billy Wilder's Stalag 17 (1953))—was no real artist and he never directed a true cinematic masterpiece despite coming pretty damn close with his classic film noir Laura (1944), but his strong and subversive character secured his place in cinema history as a somewhat memorable auteur that, for better or worse, helped to destroy the censors. As Andrew Sarris once stated of the filmmaker, “His enemies have never forgiven him for being a director with the personality of a producer […] Preminger’s legend is that of the cosmic cost accountant, a ruthless creature who will mangle the muse for the sake of a shooting schedule.” More than an accountant, Preminger—the son of a once-powerful Austrian public prosecutor who earned a ‘Doctor of Law’ at the recommendation of his father—demonstrated the antichristial spirit of a tyrannical Talmudic lawyer that prides himself on the malefic maneuvering and manipulation of the legal system, which is actually something he both personally attempted and depicted with his films, including The Man with the Golden Arm.

While Preminger apparently originally had little interest in directing a film about a dreary dope fiend, he was quite keen on destroying the Hollywood Production Code, which states in the ‘Crimes Against The Law’ section of film censor Joseph I. Breen's document: “The illegal drug traffic, and drug addiction, must never be presented.” While Jewish leftist actor John Garfield intended to play the lead in a projected cinematic adaptation of kosher quasi-commie Nelson Algren’s 1949 source novel of the same name, the outlaw film noir star died prematurely in 1952 long before Preminger became interested in the project (in fact, Preminger bought the rights for the project from Garfield's estate).  In the end, it was ultimately Algren's great misfortune that Preminger ever got interested in the project. Although the filmmaker originally had enough respect for the novelist to have him brought out from his home in Gary, Indiana to Hollywood to write the film’s screenplay, he apparently did not respect him or his screenwriting abilities too much as he soon replaced him with Walter Newman (Ace in the Hole, Cat Ballou) in an artistically disastrous scenario that haunted the writer for the rest of his life, or as hapa film historian Chris Fujiwara explained in his biography The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger (2008), “For Algren, Preminger would become an obsession, a symbol of the crass arrogance of power, an enemy with whom he would grapple again and again in his writing and his reminiscences.” A man that was ruthlessly criticized by none other than his kosher-con racial kinsman Norman Podhoretz for glorifying ghetto trash at the expense of polite society, Algren had what might be described as the quintessential ‘Barton Fink Mindset,’ which is really underscored in a critique of Preminger where he states, “…the life of the common man has never filtered into Otto’s brains and emotions; or into his talent such as he has. The book dealt with life at the bottom. Otto has never, not for so much as a single day, had any experience except that of life at the top.” Unfortunately, the trouble with Algren's critique is that, despite being a Hollywood film featuring the novelty of a famous garlic-breathed singer-cum-star, Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm does an inordinately good job portraying the purgatorial (non)existence of poor dope-shooting and scam-running proles to the point where one feels like taking a shower after watching the film lest you succumb to an unnerving feeling of festering filth.

In his highly worthwhile text Opium, journal d'une désintoxication (1930) aka Opium: The Diary of His Cure—a delightful diary of self-deluding yet insightful spiritual degeneration that makes alpha-Beat William S. Burroughs’ books on dope seem all-too-soulless by comparison—French poet and cinemagician Jean Cocteau states, “The half-sleep of opium makes us pass down corridors and cross halls and push open doors and lose ourselves in a world where people startled out of their sleep are horribly afraid of us.” Undoubtedly, Cocteau’s words are a great way to describe the inordinately haunting and oftentimes debasing experience of watching The Man with the Golden Arm, which is set in a piss poor polack ghetto of the North Side of Chicago where people seem to thrive on nothing more than fear, paranoia, and a special sort of social parasitism where even the feral version of ‘man’s best friend’ is a commodity and suavely sociopathic dope dealers aggressively prey on (ex)addicts in the gleeful hope that they get rehooked. Indeed, as Burroughs once wrote, “The junk merchant doesn’t sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product. He does not improve and simplify his merchandise. He degrades and simplifies the client.” As soon as the film’s protagonist Frankie Machine (Frank Sinatra) is released from a federal Narcotic Farm in Lexington, Kentucky, he makes the mistake of heading back to his crud-crusted Chicago hellhole where his sinisterly slimy dealer Louie (Darren McGavin)—a virtual pimp of human souls that prides himself on underhandedly exploiting human weakness for maximum personal benefit—immediately begins offering him ‘free’ heroin (notably, the name of the drug is never mentioned). Unfortunately for street parasite Louie, at least initially, Frankie has big plans and wants to leave behind his previous criminal career as the ‘dealer’ in illegal card games to become the drummer of a big band. Of course, as Burroughs also wrote, “A junkie spends half his life waiting,” and while waiting Frankie cannot ignore the, “thirty-five-pound monkey on his back.”

Notably, in his book Romancing Opiates: Pharmacological Lies and the Addiction Bureaucracy (2008), English mischling psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple completely demystifies the deluded view of drugs, especially opiates and heroin, as a source of profound artistic inspiration and creativity and instead presents them as a patently pathetic tool of the self-destructively nihilistic and, in turn, oftentimes criminal. In short, it is rare for happy people to become heroin addicts and it is only natural that someone suffering from a spiritual void would try to fill said void with what Burroughs lovingly described as ‘Cocteau’s kick.’  Undoubtedly, such is the case of Frankie Machine who has somewhat tangible dreams but is living a virtual nightmare as the figurative emotional-punching-bag of a deranged wife named Zosh (Eleanor Parker) and the pawn of local small-time criminals. While Frankie deeply loves his ex-flame Molly (Kim Novak), he felt so guilty about (supposedly) crippling Zosh while drunk driving that he pathetically agreed to marry the crazy cunt while she was still in the hospital. In fact, Molly, who works as a server at a strip club, is the perfect dream girl as she encourages Frankie to pursue his dream of being a professional drummer while resentful wench Zosh berates him for even considering doing something that might better him and, in turn, give him a reason to leave her and move on with his life. Frankie also has a goofy best friend named ‘Sparrow’ (Arnold Stang) that runs a silly scam that involves peddling homeless street dogs to unsuspecting customers. While Sparrow is a good friend, he is also a bizarrely nebbish low-life and is involved with the same scumbags that plague Frankie’s life. In short, Molly is the only true bright light in Frankie’s increasingly darkening abyss of a life. Needless to say, anyone that has to deal with an insufferable bitch like Zosh would love to escape to the ecstatic warmth of a heroin high, so it is not long before dealer Louie finally convinces Frankie to embrace the narcotic void. As Louie gleefully states before Frankie shoots his first dope since his prison stint, “Monkey’s never dead, dealer. They monkey never dies. When you kick him off……he just hides in a corner waiting his turn.”

As one can expect from any serious self-destructive addict, the abject misery of Frankie’s personal life parallels the extent of his drug abuse, though the former oftentimes fuels the latter and vice versa; or, in short, the vicious circle that is dope fiend purgatory. Although Frankie knows what he must do due to lessons from a certain Dr. Lennox (who he proudly states of, “He was real good to me”) as demonstrated by remarks like, “See, part of the cure is to keep yourself busy doing things you enjoy. Like for instance, I wanted to learn to drum and music,” the totally callous and craven parasites of his subprole life keep scamming him into their sociopathic schemes. Indeed, aside from the fact that his wife Zosh is keeping him a virtual slave by pretending to be a wheelchair-bound cripple when she is actually perfectly capable of walking, Frankie’s old boss Schwiefka (Robert Strauss)—a man that unequivocally proves that sometimes it is perfectly fine to judge a book by its cover—wants to make him his virtual slave again for his illegal card games and dope dealer Louie largely makes that happen with his highly addictive street smack. While Frankie does manage to make it into the musicians union, he botches his big band tryout due to suffering from drug withdrawal. To make matters worse, Frankie gets caught cheating during a long poker marathon that brings disgrace to his bastard of a boss Schwiefka. When Frankie beats him during an unsuccessful attempt to rob his drug stash, Louie naturally goes looking for him and is in quite surprise when he accidentally discovers that Zosh can actually walk. Afraid that Frankie will surely leave her if he discovers her big lie, Zosh actually kills Louie by pushing him over the railing of her apartment stairwell where he falls a couple floors to his miserable death (admittedly, this is a fairly awesome and completely unexpected murder scene). Naturally, Frankie is immediately suspected of the killing due to being one of Louie's virtual dope slaves, but luckily he is hiding out at his great love Molly’s apartment while he withdrawals from dope.  Needless to say, Frankie certainly does not have luck on his side but he does have love in the form of gorgeous ghetto Fräulein Molly who demonstrates through sheer action that she is the only true good element in the protagonist's life (after all, even Frankie's best bud Sparrow is, at best, a sleazy street scavenger that regularly lounges around low-lifes).

Zosh is such a pathetically evil monster that she actually dares to confess to Molly in regard to her long-term plans for her husband, “He put me in this chair. And as long as I sit here, he’ll never leave me. He knows he belongs to me. I wouldn’t wanna live if he left me. And I’d rather see him dead too than have him go to you.” While Molly has come by to convince her to help in regard to his drug problems and being suspected of murder, Zosh—a woman so deranged that she regularly happily glances at a misspelled ‘romantic’ scrapbook chronicling her crippling and subsequent marriage to the protagonist—is only interested in keeping Frankie for herself and she will go to any low to keep him on her gutter grade femme fatale leash. In the end, Frankie, who has decided to leave town, finally discovers Zosh’s handicap ruse and so does the local cop Captain Bednar (Emile Meyer) who immediately realizes that she is actually Louie’s killer. With nothing left to lose aside from her miserable life, which is worth less than nil, Zosh impulsively decides to throwaway said miserable life by jumping off the balcony of her apartment building right in front of Frankie in what feels like a moment of karmic kismet where a murderess dispatches herself the same exact way that she killed her victim. In the end in what is ultimately a fittingly uncomfortable yet largely deserved ‘happy ending,’ Frankie and Molly leave town while perennial ghetto-dweller Sparrow predictably stays behind. Not surprisingly, Nelson Algren’s source novel ends on a more negative and decidedly anti-Hollywood note with Frankie pulling a Rozz Williams and killing himself on April Fools’ Day after being forced to abandon Molly while hiding from the cops. Needless to say, it always feels like a sick joke when ‘love conquers all’ in a Preminger picture.

In my opinion, Preminger might be an authentic auteur but he is also an obviously overrated auteur that never managed to direct a true masterpiece. Indeed, while Andrew Sarris was right when he wrote, “LAURA is Preminger’s CITIZEN KANE, at least in the sense that Otto’s detractors, like Orson’s, have never permitted him to live it down,” I do not think I would ever describe Laura as an unmitigated masterpiece yet, at the same time, none of Preminger’s subsequent output comes even close to it aside from The Man with the Golden Arm. While I have not seen all the director’s films (which would undoubtedly be an unrewarding and redundant task), I have seen most of the notable ones and they are largely too long, insufferably (socio)politically motivated, rambling, and plagued with a sort of obscenely obnoxious arrogance that the director was well known for. When Preminger attempted to make a virtual Zionist The Gone with the Wind via Exodus (1960), he only achieved bombastic banality and a sort of gratingly disingenuous humanism where he tries in vain to care about the plight of Palestinians in between glorifying Herzlian heroics. While the auteur was certainly successful in demonstrating his fetish for law and the manipulation of said law with his classic flick Anatomy of a Murder (1959), no courtroom drama deserves to be at the preposterous length of 160 minutes. With his (anti)Catholic epic The Cardinal (1963)—a film where the auteur gleefully associates both Catholicism and his seemingly much despised Austro-Kraut homeland with the social nastiness of National Socialism—Preminger was unable to hide his hatred for the Catholic Church and lead Tom Tryon (who was apparently at least partly inspired to quit acting due to his experiences with Preminger).  As for his Panavision Pearl Harbor epic In Harm's Way (1965), Preminger produced a particularly plodding piece of all-star stagnation where John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, and Henry Fonda seem like they are pretending to star in a John Ford flick and failing miserably at it.  While Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965) is a particularly potent preternatural psychological-thriller that, in many ways, defies classification, Preminger, who was ironically not really fond of the film, would never again direct a truly worthwhile movie. When he was not shitting on the American South with unintentionally grotesque tabloid-like trash like Hurry Sundown (1967), Preminger was paying insincere backhanded tribute to the hippies due to their mindless subversion of traditional white Christian American society with insufferably kitschy, pseudo-psychedelic twaddle like Skidoo (1968), which is notable for featuring a virtual graveyard of washed-up actors, including Jackie Gleason, Frankie Avalon, Cesar Romero, and Groucho Marx.  As for Such Good Friends (1971) ghostwritten by Elaine May under the pseudonym ‘Esther Dale,’ Preminger made a valiant attempt at being a poor man's Woody Allen in an unintentionally absurd kosher sex-comedy that is about as hot as Whoopi Goldberg's nappy naughty bits.

Of course, one of the things that makes The Man with the Golden Arm so surprisingly enthralling aside from Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak’s performances is that, with the exception of the iconic title sequence by Saul Bass, it is not particularly Premingerian in the emotional sense and it actually feels sincerely sympathetic (as opposed to arrogantly cynical) in its depiction of human degradation and desperation. Aside from source Nelson Algren’s novel, the film probably owes its sense of humanistic authenticity to Sinatra who, unlike a lot of people that worked with Preminger, was unwillingly to take shit from the dictatorial director, which he was able to get away with due to his fame and popularity (notably, Marlon Brando, who snatched the lead role in On the Waterfront (1954) from Sinatra, was also interested in the role).  In fact, Preminger was so impressed with Sinatra that he wanted to use him in an adaptation of Mario Puzo's The Godfather, or as the auteur-cum-producer wrote, “Many years later Paramount asked me to direct THE GODFATHER.  I thought Sinatra would be wonderful in the lead and sent him the book.  I even offered to eliminate the character of the winger, who some people thought was patterned after Sinatra.  Nevertheless he said, ‘Ludvig, I pass on this.’”  Luckily, Francis Ford Coppola would ultimately direct the film as Preminger has never directed a film as nearly as aesthetically potent and truly epic as The Godfather (1972) despite his tackling of various films with long-running times.

As Chris Fujiwara noted in regard to the film, “Like THE MOON IS BLUE, SAINT JOAN, and, especially, PORGY AND BESS, THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM is in this sense an exception to the main movement of Preminger’s work after his departure from Fox and before SKIDOO: an abstract, hermetic film rather than one that involves itself with a reality that exists outside, and for other purposes than, the filmic project. The sets render Algren’s skid row as an isolated and self-contained world, accentuating both its hopelessness and its lack of historicity. This world has no past and no future; it is read for the bulldozers. The stylization of some of the performances—Robert Strauss’s and Arnold Stang’s, notably—suits this desperate and artificial quality perfectly.” Of course, this ‘artificiality’ that Fujiwara speaks of only underscores the protagonist’s increasing junky jadedness, dirtbag delirium, and lingering lovesickness, as if the character has been condemned to a completely colorless heroin habitué hell.  Indeed, the best compliment I can pay the film is that it is like the Fritz Lang's M (1931) of junky films as a boldly fucked flick that somehow manages to utilize studio artifice to underscore the metaphysical malaise of the urban underworld to the point where the viewer feels that they have actually spent a couple hours in heroin addict Hades.

If The Man with the Golden Arm is the junky cinematic jam par excellence where the viewer has the singular luxury of experiencing the spiritually necrotic nadir of narcotic nihilism, Jean Cocteau’s surrealist directorial debut Le sang d'un poète (1930) aka The Blood of a Poet—a film that the poet turned filmmaker alludes to in his opium diary when he states, “My next work will be a film”—is its European arthouse celluloid counterpoint as an oneiric Orphic odyssey as inspired by the auteur’s own apparently life-changing experiences with opium. In short, Cocteau’s film is arguably an example of the ‘positive’ effects of opium. Notably, Cocteau would argue in his drug diary, “Opium, which changes our speeds, procures for us a very clear awareness of worlds which are superimposed on each other, which interpenetrate each other, but do not even suspect each other’s existence.” While I can somewhat respect Cocteau’s somewhat naively romantic view of a drug that debased his soul and his words certainly make for a good description of the otherworldly experiences of the eponymous poet protagonist played by Enrique Riveros, The Man with the Golden Arm is unequivocally more in tune with the hauntingly hideous moral, emotional, physical, and spiritual lows associated with heroin addiction. In fact, I would warn the more impressionable art fags out there to stay steer clear of Cocteau’s Opium: The Diary of His Cure lest they catch a nasty addiction that won’t inspire much art but probably tons of all-consuming misery and quite possibly even death. After all, for every Bukowski and Burroughs, who were both miserable men, there are probably millions of degenerate drunks and junkies with failed artistic intentions and The Man with the Golden Arm does a rather respectful job depicting the perils of such a disgusting dead-end life.

As for a vaguely similar real-life parallel to the character of protagonist Frankie Machine in terms of a junky jazz musician that lives to lose, American jazz trumpeter Chet Baker is a good example and, in that sense, queer fashion photographer Bruce Weber’s documentary Let's Get Lost (1988) certainly makes for a great double feature with Preminger’s flick.  Needless to say, superficially romantic pop cinema like The Basketball Diaries (1995) is nothing short of a frivolous emotional con job if you are really looking to get down with dope fiends.  While by no means a bad movie, Danny Boyle's Trainspotting (1996)—a film that seems more aesthetically inspired by psychedelic drugs than the opium oriented sort—has probably inspired more people to shoot junk than steer clear of it.  As for junky films directed by actual junkies, Richard Kern (Submit to Me, Fingered) of the so-called Cinema of Transgression movement is probably the most notable example and naturally his films are totally morally retarded.  Needless to say, most junky cinema is junk.

Notably, Andrew Sarris summed up Preminger’s artistically curious cinematic career as follows, “We are left with a director who has made at least four masterpieces of ambiguity and objectivity—LAURA, BONJOUR TRISTESSE, ADVISE AND CONSENT, and BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING, a director who sees all problems and issues as a single-take two-shot, the stylistic expression of the eternal conflict, not between right and wrong, but between the right-wrong on one side and the right-wrong on the other, a representation of the right-wrong in all of us as our share of the human condition. In the middle of the conflict stands Otto Preminger, right-wrong, good-bad, and probably sincere-cynical.” Indeed, aside from the occasional neo-Sirkian melodrama à la Fassbinder’s The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971), not many films quite achieve the “sincere-cynical” of The Man with the Golden Arm where a marriage is depicted as something as spiritually deadly as narcotic addiction. And, undoubtedly, arguably more than any of Preminger’s other films, his junky flick depicts, for better or worse, the signature penetrating Premingerian moral ambiguity (or lack of morality) that Sarris relatively soundly describes.  In short, The Man with the Golden Arm is no pussy film, but a penetrating piece of understated pathos where one gets to the dead heart of addiction in a fashion that does not coddle the viewer or give them wild romantic ideas about addiction.

As someone that has personally known various junkies, including of the dead, undead, and almost-dead variety, The Man with the Golden Arm proved to be at least strong enough to make me (almost) consider taking a nice warm shower lest bask in the metaphysical grudge and grime, but I must confess that the film does not address the philosophical aspect of junkydom. Indeed, as Cocteau once wrote, “The purity of a revolution can last a fortnight. That is why a poet, the revolutionary of the soul, limits himself to the about-turns of the mind. Every fortnight I change my programme. For me opium is a revolt. Addiction a revolt. The cure a revolt. I do not talk of my works. Each one guillotines the other. My only aim is to spare myself Napoleon.” Of course, one also argue that the opioid epidemic plaguing white mainstream America is also a (largely unconscious and supremely misguided) collective nihilistic revolt against Hebraic Hollywood and all it stands for as Tinseltown is merely the propaganda arm for the globalized crypto-kosher post-white multicultural America. And, of course, it was Preminger, who literally utilized The Man with the Golden Arm as one of his various cinematic weapons to crush mainstream white Christian morality, who helped to pave the way to this Hollywoodland hell. In that sense, I somehow feel much better about recommending Victor Sjöström’s silent dipsomaniac delight The Phantom Carriage (1921)—an aesthetically pioneering film that takes both a literal and figurative approach to depicting the haunting horrors of alcoholism—instead of Preminger’s lumpenprole dope fiend flick when it comes to films depicting the purgatorial perils of addiction.  Indeed, if non-junky Preminger's greatest contribution to the art of cinema was a junky flick featuring a popular wop crooner that was at least partly motivated by quasi-legal reasons, one comes to a rather dubious conclusion about his value and legacy as an artist.  In that sense, Preminger was probably on a similar moral plane as a junky, albeit with the spirit of a Wall Street cokehead type.  Of course, I say that as someone that considers transcendental European arthouse films like Robert Bresson's The Devil, Probably (1977) and Adriaan Ditvoorst's White Madness (1984) to be the absolute apotheosis of junky cinema, but such hermetic flicks were not made for the same American prole audience that The Man with the Golden Arm was meant to appeal to.  After all, even when it comes to junkies, not all people are equal.

-Ty E

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