There's no standard definition for film noir, although like a lot of people, it evokes for me a gritty 1950s monochrome image, detectives and desparate men, night shadows and the City's criminal underbelly. Yet Polanski's Chinatown was set in the harsh California sunlight, and Sweet Smell of Success contained no criminals or detectives. For my money, film noir is typified by the description above, but more generally a state of mind, a film pervaded with unease.
Otto Preminger's 1955 film The Man With The Golden Arm certainly fits the bill. Frank Sinatra plays Frankie, a junkie fresh out of jail, trying to stay clean, and go straight. The film tracks his cycles of success and failure on these scores. He’s a skilled poker dealer, who took the rap for the game’s organiser, but he wants to make a career from his new-found talent in drumming.
Elmer Bernstein’s jazzy score is strong, pervasive, sometimes quite jarring, in keeping with the subject matter. And that subject is addiction, in all its forms. The alcoholic is made to humiliate himself for a drink. The gamblers want to gamble, and Frankie is reeled back into the game, despite landing in jail for it. His wife is addicted to pity, and pretends to be crippled to attract that pity. His girlfriend is “addicted” to love, and languidly lights up a cigarette, only to focus instead on Frankie’s eyes, seeing in horror his slide back into heroin. Absolutely everyone in this film has an addiction of one type or another. Even Frankie’s devoted sidekick Sparrow, who seems to be there for comic relief, actually shows his addiction for Frankie with pathos.
It’s gritty, full of desparation and moral ambiguity, and largely devoid of sympathy. I guess the viewer is meant to root for Frankie. Not so easy in my case, since I didn’t warm to Frank Sinatra in the role. For one thing, he was - for me - not remotely plausible as a drummer. And Frankie is a complex character to portray, with moments of tenderness and brutality, depravity and redemption. Although Sinatra could show the hard side with excellence, he needed to carry the film through its upbeat moments and its softer scenes, right through to the end – but he was not fully convincing.
Sinatra apparently grabbed the role from Marlon Brando. I don’t know if Brando was ideal either, but he certainly had the depth as an actor that Sinatra lacked.
It’s good, and overall a successful film, definitely worth a look. Yet I found it a hard film to watch. Very hard. It took me several goes over a long period to persist all the way to the end. Maybe this is what makes it a good example of film noir.