The Man With the Golden Arm (1987) from Silver Dollar Sam

 (Note: Silver Dollar Sam is the professional gambler and raconteur who writes

The Man with the Golden Arm is a film made by Otto Preminger in his favorite black and white mode and usual lack of merriment.  It’s one of his best. This film is the first film to tackle heroin addiction and was released without a seal of approval. The film may seem a little dated at times, but the drug scenes are still realistic, especially the quit “cold turkey” sequence.  Because the film was well done, received Academy Award attention and was, at the same time, breaking codes, it got public attention and many drug movies followed.  Preminger’s bold film helped show Hollywood that the public wanted more than the Approval Office was allowing.

The film stars Frank Sinatra in the title role, Eleanor Parker in an over the top portrayal and Kim Novak in a wooden but sweet performance.  It also stars Darren McGavin, Arnold Stang, Robert Strauss, and John Conte.  Elmer Bernstein’s musical score drives the emotional pitch forward as we become more and more involved in the story.


The Man with the Golden Arm is special to me for several reasons.

  • First, it was made about the time I came home from the Korean War and started a career of scuffling in the back rooms and alleys of the poker world.  I was fresh from the easy poker wins and proposition side bets in the barracks, ready and eager for big time poker, just as the young today are fresh from the internet and ready.  A little wary, I had an attitude more hopeful than cocky and, luckily, I knew I had a lot to learn. 

  • Second, Frank Sinatra gave a riveting performance. We’ll dedicate this review to Frank; he would have been 89 today. I liked him in From Here to Eternity, but he had a much better screen presence in The Man with the Golden Arm. There are postings on IMDb, and elsewhere, from drug users saying Sinatra’s performance as a drug addict is accurate and very believable.  There can be no better applause for an actor and his director. I can attest that Sinatra’s performance as a dealer is also good, although some of the dialogue is kitchen table cheesy. Sinatra holds the deck like a dealer and deals the cards from his fingers like a dealer of old.  In watching the film again, it’s good to see good dealing in a movie for a change. While Frank won an Oscar for From Here to Eternity, he was nominated without the win for Golden Arm because of some pretty stiff competition. 

  • Third, the poker scenes looked very real to me at the time and I was impressed with the street set.  Less than a year later I was to realize the poker action wasn’t that realistic and the back lot street was a little too perfect.  But they are still good to look at. 

  • Fourth, the film is about a drug addict who also happens to be a poker dealer. It portrayed a dealer the way dealers used to be.  They were respected in the local community because of their responsibility and the money they earned.  They didn’t just put cards on the table, they ran and protected the game and developed a following for the game.  And they accomplished it all in opposition to the law.  In 1958, when I started dealing center deal poker, three years after the movie was in theaters, I used to kid sometimes about being the man with the golden arm.  Only sometimes would a player know what I meant.  (No, it didn’t mean I was a druggie; it meant I was a dealer.)

  • Fifth, and last, my friend Robert Strauss played the character Schwiefka who ran the poker room in the film.  Robert was a regular at my poker tables in Los Angeles only ten years later.  We used to kid sometimes about him running the games for me.  Readers may also remember him as “Animal” in Stalag 17 for which he received an Academy Award.  Robert died in 1975.


As for the poker: 

Sinatra is directed by Preminger to turn the deck in his hands in the middle of the deal.  That maneuver would never be tolerated in real play, but it sets us up for him to cap the deck by placing his hands over the top and riffling the cards in a later scene.  But the cap not only is bad, it calls attention to itself.  No wonder the mark grabbed his wrist and revealed the palmed cap card.

The games in the poker den are not table stakes games and there is no reason why they shouldn’t be; a table stakes rule wouldn’t have affected the story. Preminger obviously spent some research time and money on making the drug portrayal real, but felt the kitchen table variety of poker was okay.  He must have spent a little time on the capping-the-deck scene, but even that was clumsy.

We are not privileged to see the cards in the hands that are dealt, but the dealer calls the cards out, as if he were in a college dorm game.  With the announcement of three threes showing in stud, we hope the game is seven card, or else how could they have gotten that far in the hand?  A seven card stud game would be unusual in a high stakes game in 1955.  So is it an unusual seven card game, or a bad five card game?  Again, plausibility comes up a little short in a poker scene.


None. People were not allowed to be naked in 1955, except to take a shower, and even then they had to wear waterproof blindfolds.

In the end, the bad guys are dead and the honest people have a future.

 Funny, how Preminger makes us enjoy it.  Real funny.

The Critics Vote ...

  • It was nominated for three Oscars: best actor, best musical score, best art/set decoration. It did not win any of the three.

The People Vote ...

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

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