Soundtracks of Significance: “The Man With the Golden Arm”
Frank Sinatra was a great actor because he was not an actor at all.
Sinatra was, at his core, a musician and a great dresser. That’s essentially it. All of his other talents and accomplishments, the acting, the dancing, the painting, the legendary collection of toy trains, the dames, they were all expressions of his one other core attribute: he was a challenge-seeker. His life and career can be seen as a series of answers to the question, “So what’s next?”
Even though it meant sometimes coming at things as an amateur, his fearlessness allowed him to cut a wide swath through culture and media. Of all the arts outside of his own that he attempted, acting is the one where his amateur status was actually a benefit. His performances are honest and eager, and so free from artifice, precisely because of his don’t-tell-me-I-can’t-do-it attitude. Instead of broadcasting a bunch of actor-ing at the camera, as a traditionally trained stage-actor might, he simply is his character (though that isn’t simple at all) and says his lines, holding his emotions right where all of us hold them: inside, forcing the camera to come in and crawl across his skin to find them.
The Man With the Golden Arm didn’t need to be some great triumph of the cinematic arts. It could have just been another entry in the social-consciousness propaganda flap of the 1950s, the era of The Sinister Urge and Blackboard Jungle, noble attempts by well-meaning white people to leverage the medium of film to play out cautionary morality tales, in a vain attempt to prevent the rest of the 20th-century culture from happening.
The people of 1955 had a plague on their hands (as we still do today), a plague that came in a needle and made fast things seem slow. And in the days before mimetic hashtag-driven sympathy-as-politics, the only method they had for spreading the word about the world’s dangers was the age-old art of telling stories. So they found the story of Frankie Machine, a drummer from Chicago’s South Side, with a disabled wife and an ex-girlfriend, freshly back from getting clean but with friends in all the same low places. Into this role they brilliantly cast a fresh-faced heartthrob who was nonetheless capable of the ruthless range that the character required, because Sinatra was not unfamiliar with a life lived at the extremes and he was unafraid to leave it all on the screen.
The music, from the radiant intellect of Elmer Bernstein, is a sophisticated and violent interweaving of symphony and big band, high art and “low” art battling against each other like addiction and willpower. Just like in “Peter and the Wolf,” the four main characters appear in the score as leitmotifs from specific instruments. Zosh (Eleanor Parker), the desperate wheelchair-bound Mrs. Machine, is a moaning cello, warm, sad, and dark. Molly (Kim Novak), the “other woman” with a heart as golden as her hair, is a bright but tentative flute, capable of seduction but unwilling to commit. The wicked dealer Louie (Darren McGavin) is always accompanied by pianos and organ, for he must ply his trade with deft fingers. And sitting at the center of it all are the drums of Frankie Machine, the swung-eighths of the high-hat first seeming to be his jovial heart and light-footed steps, but later taking on a more ominous pulsing threat, as his jangled nerves and heart struggle to find the beat that he thought was the life he deserved.
The significance of this score can be told with seven tracks, which for the sake of coherence I will refer to here via naughty YouTube links. But I implore you to purchase this record. It is a unique and powerful artifact of the art of the score.
1. “Frankie Machine”
As the credits roll, we are greeted with the sound of Frankie’s drums, setting off a dialog between meters and ranges, different parts of the orchestra yelling at each other. Is this a fast song or a slow one? Is the melody high or low?
More importantly, is it in 4/4 or 6/8? Parts of it you might conduct in 4 for expediency, to make sure the drummer flicks gently through the swung eighth notes. But as we’ll see as the score develops, that low ascending line, unmistakably in 6/8 and carrying with it some dark threat, is really what this film is about. The half-time high-hat pattern that cuts in is by no means the soundtrack of the story we’re about to see. It might be the quick-beating heart of a fresh-faced optimist just back on the street, but it can do no better than provide a pathetic “come on guys, cheer up!” counterpoint to the impending, discordant doom coming from everywhere else.
Molly is introduced by a low flute and lush strings, which vaporizes into strange fairy-tale music that casts the character in an innocent light, despite her dark eyes and questionable morals. The music continues to sweeten painfully, as her simple six-note melody is passed from one high-register voice to another, seeming unwilling or unable to find a place to land, just like Molly seems to float above and around the poison core of Frankie’s drama. It is no accident that we see Molly before we see Zosh, and Molly will find within her enormous strength and power by the third act, but this is only hinted at by this ominous, elegant theme.
Zosh is this story’s Gothic heroine, at least in her own eyes, trapped in a wheelchair (by her own choosing), insane with love for Frankie but unable to bridge an emotional (and artistic?) gap between them. She is represented in the score by a cello, which must be played sitting down of course, and which is rarely associated with a jazz drumset. Unlike, say, a jazz flute.
4. “The Fix”
We knew it was inevitable, and maybe Frankie did too. All that Louie the dealer had to do was wait, and eventually the brush-on-snare stumbling steps of Frankie’s drum would make their way to his door. Jazz collides with classical harmonies in a glorious car crash, leading to an explosion of brass that almost peaks out the microphones. When the needle hits the vein, an organ plays like at a holy mass. They say heroin is like kissing Jesus.
One of the dramatic gifts of having a main character who is a musician, and who is played by someone who knows how to play the instrument for real, is the opportunity to watch the character create in front of our eyes. The radiant big band drummer Shelly Manne, who is featured on the soundtrack, tutored Sinatra in the ways of the skins, and in this scene, this painful scene when Frankie has to audition for a band leader while strung out and overtired, we get to watch him actually play the drums.
It’s an intimate series of moments that are riveting to watch. To everyone else on the screen, this is a normal day; just another rehearsal for the band. The music is great, and the band, Shorty Rogers and his Giants, was a legitimate force in the jazz world at the time. It is against this backdrop that Frankie Machine risks everything, and loses.
6. “The Cure”
This music, as with the scene that it accompanies, could stand on its own as a distinct work of art. In the scene, Frankie, with Molly’s help, barricades himself in her apartment in an attempt to kick the habit cold turkey. We are treated to one of the most brutally honest portrayals of withdrawal syndrome ever captured on film. I don’t say “realistic” because, although Sinatra did famously base his performance on having observed this process first-hand in hospitals, the histrionic brevity of the ordeal is clearly intended to serve the story and to inspire certain feelings in the audience, not to be a medical document. It is, nonetheless, horrifying, and the music matches.
The music’s contrast to the rest of the score accentuates the fact that Frankie is no longer in the world that he is used to; the instruments and motifs that he used to be able to count on are no longer there, except for Molly’s flute, only twice able to break in past the pain. In their place, high staccato riffs across the entire face of the orchestra jab needles into our ears, and earthquakes of low brass crescendos rattle our teeth. Frankie’s drum tries desperately to reassert a loose, jazzy atmosphere, but it quickly disassembles into a chaos of collisions and is never heard from again.
This is a singular piece of music which could be said to be out-of-sync with the rest of the score, but the emotional magnitude of the scene required a completely different sound.
As with many B-pictures from this era and genre, The Man With the Golden Arm does not have a happy ending (which I will not spoil for you here.) The final piece of music has so much to cover in terms of the plots that are coming to a head, that Bernstein has precious little sonic space to provide satisfying callbacks or resolutions to the extraordinary melodies heard throughout the film.
In fact this was the stronger choice, to correctly serve the scene with gorgeous, and gorgeously correct, music that let’s us know that the story is done and that the lessons that it had to teach have been wrapped up as much as any story of the modern urban life can be. But it does not imply that the natural order of things has been restored: Louie’s threatening, insinuating organ appears for a few beats to remind us that the monkey never goes away. He just waits.