Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM – Elmer Bernstein



Original Review by Craig Lysy

Actor John Garfield came across Nelson Algren’s novel The Man with the Golden Arm (1949) and was inspired to bring it to the big screen. He purchased the film rights and planned to take on the lead role of Frankie. He immediately ran into censoring problems as the Production Code Authority (PCA) and the Catholic National League of Decency (NLD) would not sanction the film because it featured drug trafficking and drug addiction. The film’s fate passed to renowned director Otto Preminger after he was bequeathed the film rights following Garfield’s death in 1952. Preminger related that he was attracted to the story because “I think there’s a great tragedy in any human being who gets hooked on something, whether it’s heroin or love or a woman or whatever.” Like Garfield, Preminger ran into a wall with the PCA and NLD, but he was determined to overcome all obstacles to fulfill his vision. He brought in Algren to adapt his novel, but personality clashes led to Algren’s replacement with screenwriter Walter Newman. Significant changes to the story were made, which led Algren to sue Preminger for the film rights, however the suit was later dropped as Algren could not afford the legal expenses.

Casting also brought controversy; copies of the script were given to both Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra. Sinatra was still bitter that Brando beat him out for the role of Terry in “On The Waterfront” a year earlier. He jumped quickly on the opportunity and secured the part of Frankie before Brando could respond. Joining him were Eleanor Parker as Zosh, Kim Novak as Molly Novotny, Arnold Stang as Sparrow, Darren McGavin as “Nifty Louie” Fomorowski and Robert Strauss as Zero Schwiefka. Set in Chicago’s North Side following the end of WWII, the film tells the tragic tale of the ravages of drug addiction, and of how it destroys both the addict and those around him. Frankie Machine has dried out while serving his prison term and sets out to start a new life as a drummer. But old ‘friends’ Schwiefka and Louie lure him back to dealing illegal card games. His wife Zosh is unsupportiveof his efforts to pursue his music, and feigns paraplegia to keep him from straying. A reacquaintance with his old flame Molly only serves to complicate his life. Soon the pressures of long nights of dealing cards and home stress catch up with him and he again succumbs to the siren call of drugs, just as he is offered a tryout for drummer. Events quickly spin out of control with devastating results; Frankie blowing the audition because of withdrawal pain, he being falsely accused of Louie’s murder, and Zosh committing suicide. The film’s release was a seminal event in Hollywood history as United Artists defied the PCA and NLD, and distributed the film without the PCA and NLD Code Seal. The resultant controversy led the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to liberate story-telling by ending prohibition of the forbidden subjects of drug abuse, kidnapping, miscegenation, abortion and prostitution. The film was a commercial and critical success, earning three Academy Award nominations including; Best Actor, Best Art Direction and Best Film Score.

Interestingly enough, it was Preminger’s brother who recommended that Bernstein be hired to score the film. Bernstein convinced Preminger that a contemporaneous score with a strong jazz vibe was needed to speak to the seedy nightlife of Chicago’s North end. Preminger bought the concept and asked the 33-year-old Elmer Bernstein to immerse the audience in Frankie’s nightlife world as a musician. To bring his vision to fruition Bernstein infused his syncopated jazz soundscape with alto, tenor and baritone saxophones, brought in renowned soloists Shelly Manne on drums, and Shorty Rogers and Pete Candoli on trumpets. Bernstein also revealed wisdom beyond his years by granting these gifted players significant latitude in expressing his music, even allowing Rogers to assist with the arrangements. Bernstein was tasked with writing his score to meet a fixed three-week deadline, which resulted in him visiting the set daily for context and inspiration. The score is underpinned by three primary themes; Frankie’s Theme offers a classic Blues vibe, is powered by kinetic rhythmic drums and a chorus of horns bellicoso from which arise the theme’s defining trumpets and flugelhorn. Within its repeating five-note construct there is a swirling vortex of cockiness, energy and chaos. Most interesting is how his theme mirrors Frankie’s descent, as his early film confidence and hopes slowly devolve from sobriety to the desolation of addiction. For Frankie’s wife, Bernstein juxtaposes Frankie’s masculine theme with Zosh’s Theme, a string-laden melody that graces us with various solo instruments, including piano, oboe, clarinet or saxophone, which dance over a foundation of shifting bass and celli chords. Notable is that her theme’s articulation never achieves a satisfactory conclusion, which portends that her marriage to Frankie is doomed. Lastly, Bernstein provides a second feminine theme, Molly’s Theme to support the other woman in Frankie’s life. Carried by piano and flute delicato, it speaks to Molly’s caring heart and her harbor of affection for Frankie, offering one of Bernstein’s finest themes.

“Clarke Street” offers a brilliant score highlight and an iconic film opening. It serves as the film’s main title during which the opening credits roll to Saul Bass’ amazing groundbreaking visuals. Bass related; “The intent of this opening was to create a mood spare, gaunt, with a driving intensity… [that conveyed] the distortion and jaggedness, the disconnectedness and disjointedness of the addict’s life the subject of the film.” We see white bars appearing and then disappearing before finally coalescing into the film’s symbol of a jagged arm. It should be noted that these seductive visuals were created by Bass and adapted to display to Bernstein’s set piece for the film’s opening. We open with a classic Manne drum rift, from which is launched by horns bellicoso, Pete Condoli’s cocky articulation of Frankie’s Theme on trumpet with kindred swaggering horns. This theme is one for the ages! At 1:25 we segue into “The Top” atop Frankie’s trumpet as we see Frankie exit a bus onto Clarke Street. At 2:22 we flow into “Homecoming – Antek’s” as Frankie returns to Antek’s Saloon where he is welcomed back by his old friends. Bernstein supports the scene with big band source music provided by a jukebox. Immediately Louie tries to lure Frankie back to his old life, but he turns him down and leaves, supported by a big band sounding of his theme.

In “Zosh” we come to another score highlight that features exquisite writing for strings and woodwinds, with several beautiful solos. Frankie returns to his old apartment tenement and as he ascends the stairs Bernstein introduces Zosh’s Theme on cello doloroso and a plaintive clarinet, which inform us of their sad circumstances. Kindred strings and woodwinds join as he greets and hugs her while she sits in her wheelchair. She is effusive, kissing him incessantly, declaring how much she missed him, and loves him. Yet Bernstein music reveals a discontinuity, as he speaks to her internal mindset, not the external deception, as her theme does not express this joy, but instead, duplicity. At 2:49 Frankie declares that he has beaten drugs and will not return to his old life. He declares that he intends to join a band as a drummer, so as to make a better life for them, and pay for her therapy. Bernstein supports the moment with a jazzy blues vibe as Frankie strums his drums, which is countered by plaintive strings articulating he theme. A closure on forlorn woodwinds as he departs to seek work informs us that troubled waters await.

In a cue not included on the album, Frankie asks sparrow to get him a new suit for his audition. As he makes an appointment on the tenement common phone, he runs into old flame Molly, and we see their chemistry has not diminished. As Frankie tries on the new suit Zosh attempts to keep him home with her by feigning back pain. Her sad and desperate theme supports the scene and she is ultimately unsuccessful as Frankie departs for his audition. He runs into Schwiefka who asks him to resume dealing, which he pointedly refuses. Schwiefka is angry, and rats him out to the cops who arrest him on the street as apparently Sparrow has shoplifted the suit. Schwiefka offers to post bail and get the charges dropped if he agrees to again start dealing for him. Frankie is trapped, and acquiesces, a decision, which will lead to his doom.

“The Fix” is a stunning cue where Bernstein demonstrates mastery of his craft. Zosh tells the visiting doctor how a drunk Frankie got them in the car crash, which injured her back. Frankie feels humiliated, can take no more, and storms out of the apartment. The stress is too much, and has brought back his craving for drugs, and so he follows Louie to his apartment to get a fix. Swirling and intensifying strings agitato carry his progress and his theme crescendo on horns as he makes his fateful decision. An orchestral agitato supports Louie’s preparations for Frankie’s arrival, intensifying as he arrives and rolls up his sleeve. Beginning at 1:17 we have five successive orchestral strikes, each timed to accentuate Louie pulling drug paraphernalia from a drawer and placing it on the cabinet top. These powerful strikes ratchet up both the tension but Frankie’s intensifying craving – this is brilliantly conceived! Pounding piano and grim rolling drums help to intensify his theme, which builds to a horrific shrieking crescendo on horns and swirling strings as he is injected. Once injected we see in Frankie’s eyes the relieving of his stress, and as the euphoria carries him to sleep the scene dissipates on his theme with a plaintive diminuendo.

In “Molly” we have a cue of exquisite beauty where Bernstein’s fully renders Molly’s Theme. The confluence of flute, kindred woodwinds, solo violin and piano offers one of Bernstein’s most memorable themes. In the scene Frankie cannot deal with Zosh’s negativity and asks Molly if he can practice his drums in her apartment. She consents and we can see their affection has been rekindled. His theme entwines on a forlorn trumpet as he relates that he has fallen off the wagon, but insists he will beat this a make something of himself. The marriage of music and film narrative in this scene is sublime. We come now to Frankie Machine” a stupendous score highlight where Bernstein’s unleashes Frankie’s Theme in all its glory with a full extended rendering. In the scene, Zosh continues to oppose Frankie’s music career ambitions, insisting he return to dealing cards for Louie. He knows that this will lead him back to addiction and leaves her. He goes to Antek’s for a drink and Louie joins him. Louie offers him a huge amount of money, enough to treat Zosh if he returns to dealing. Frankie reluctantly accepts and then is enticed by Louie to take another hit. Bernstein showcases Frankie’s Theme and we are treated to virtuoso performances by Shorty Rogers on trumpet and Shelly Manne on drums. This five-minute piece is just exceptional! The piece culminates in an intense crescendo on blaring horns, which carry Frankie to Louie’s apartment.

In “Breakup – Fight” Frankie joins Molly at a bar and she realizes that he has starting shooting drugs again. She is clearly distraught, repeatedly asking him why. A fight with her boyfriend John causes her to flee with him in hot pursuit. A driving piano agitato, chattering percussion and horn blares buffet her distressed theme. She arrives home, packs her belongings, and leaves him despite his pleas. As she departs in a cab at 1:24 we segue into “Louie’s” on an eerie string sustain. It ushers in Frankie’s tortured theme, which swells in a crescendo of pain as we see him run to Louie’s apartment for a fix. At 1:58 we segue on bongos into “Burlesque”, a cue that is inexplicably linked to a bar scene earlier in the movie, where it serves as background source music. In “Sunday Morning” Frankie has been up all night dealing cards and is dead tired. He leaves and returns home carried by tranquil woodwinds and strings. As he enters the apartment he is greeted by a forlorn rendering of Zosh’s Theme. At 1:08 as Zosh sleeps and he sits on the bed a subtle discordance begins to build. This swells with a darkening intensification as Bernstein initiates a truly horrific driving crescendo upon Frankie’s Theme, which franticly carries him back to the card game in search of Louie. He needs a fix, is desperate to get it and Bernstein’s music makes us feel this.

In “Desperation” Bernstein offers an emotional powerhouse. Frankie has lost the card game and found to be cheating. He is beaten up and we see a defeated man who has lost everything. He is in withdrawal pain and enters Louie’s apartment for a fix. Louie has not paid him for dealing since he lost him money. He demands payment for the fix. Tremolo violins, flute and kindred plaintive woodwinds carry a pathetic Frankie Theme as he rejects Sparrow’s comfort and goes to Louie’s apartment. At 1:16 Frankie is broke and snaps, he clobbers Louie with a chair knocking him out. He is crazed and ransacks the apartment unable to find the drugs. What is offered is genius as Bernstein supports this pivotal scene by hollowing out Frankie’s Theme. We bear witness to desperation of discordance. A warm chorus of oboe, flute and clarinet, is assaulted by churning piano, aching percussion and a writhing descent of strings, which animate Frankie, who is frantic and out of control. As he happens to gaze at his watch he realizes that he has only 45 minutes left to make his audition. The confluence of music, acting and film imagery in this scene is extraordinary. At 2:15 in a scene change, a ragged Frankie enters the sound stage where a band is playing. Bernstein supports this with source music. “Audition” reveals Frankie reporting for his audition. He fails miserably and walks away without saying a word. Bernstein offers a classic big band source cue to support the audition. This full rendering of the cue is significantly truncated in the actual film.

In “The Cure – Withdrawal” Frankie finds Molly and begs her for money as he is frantic for a fix. She convinces him to go sober and he warns her that his withdrawal pain will be difficult for both him and her. She locks him in her bedroom and he begins the horror of withdrawal. We see him writhing in pain on the floor, suffering horribly in an incredible and compelling acting performance by Sinatra. Bernstein offers repeating orchestral shrieks of writhing pain with a cacophony of percussion, which drive home Frankie’s horrific suffering. Swirling strings carry his theme, now writhing in exquisite unbearable pain. We segue into “Cold” where Molly unlocks the closet to release Frankie, who lies vulnerable and shivering, feeling so cold. She wraps him, comforts him, and lies upon him to transfer her warmth. Bernstein’s music is dialed out of the film. At 3:31 we segue on her theme on flute into the tranquility of “Morning” a heartfelt cue where we bear witness to the triumph of love. Frankie has completed withdrawal and is healed by Molly’s love. A refulgent violin carries her joy as they celebrate his return to sobriety and we conclude with a hopeful rendering of her theme. In “Finale” Frankie visits Zosh and declares his intention to leave. She begs him to stay and take care of her, but he understands that to survive, he must leave her and the old life. The music enters late supporting her running to him as he leaves, just as the police arrive to bear witness. Now exposed, and implicated in the murder of Louie. Her theme rises, plaintive and full of regret. As she is arrested, she runs and cast herself over the railing, falling to her death. Sharp, strident strings with metallic percussion sow desperation and fear, achieving a crescendo pain on tremolo violins as she runs to the balcony and leaps to her death. Frankie descends to her on the street and her theme plays as a threnody, as her life ebbs on strings doloroso. A pulsing bass figure with eerie tremolo strings carry her passing. At 3:12 a solo trumpet plays over pizzicato bass as we see a heavy burden lifted, and Frankie and Molly taking the first steps together, carried by a hopeful rendering of her theme, which crescendos in a wondrous horn flourish.

I commend Spectrum Music for this excellent presentation of Elmer’s Bernstein’s outstanding score to The Man With The Golden Arm. While Alex North opened the door for using Jazz as a film’s score idiom with A Street Car Named Desire (1951), Bernstein’s effort with this score blew the door off its hinges. So great an impression did his jazz score make, that it precipitated a rush by many directors to adopt jazz scores for their films. There was no turning back, as Jazz had arrived and would thrive for years to come. Bernstein was tasked to provide music to support a film with powerful and controversial emotional drivers. His Frankie’s Theme captured the film’s emotional core and to this day takes its place in the Pantheon of great film scores as one of the finest themes ever written. How he modulates its confidence, cockiness and swagger as Frankie descends into drug addiction and dissolution is genius. The virtuoso performances of Shelly Manne on drums, Shorty Rogers and Pete Candoli on trumpets, Milt Bernhart on Trombone and Bud Shank on alto sax achieved a rare and astounding synergy of talent never before realized in film. Bernstein’s two feminine constructs, Molly and Zosh’s Themes, offered an evocative juxtaposition, with each calling Frankie to a different destiny. In the end, the love and hope embodied in Molly’s Theme triumphs. This score is one of the finest in Bernstein’s canon, a seminal and transformative score that potentiated the jazz phenomenon in film music, and one, which I believe is essential to your collection.

For those of you unfamiliar, I have embedded a YouTube link for the iconic Main Title “Clarke Street” with its amazing virtuoso performances: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zotzbUZsR9k

Buy the Man With the Golden Arm soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Clarke Street (4:59)
  • Zosh (4:31)
  • Frankie Machine (5:00)
  • The Fix (3:32)
  • Molly (4:55)
  • Breakup (3:46)
  • Sunday Morning (2:52)
  • Desperation (2:51)
  • Audition (2:45)
  • The Cure (6:00)
  • Finale (4:11)

Running Time: 45 minutes 15 seconds

Spectrum Music 544-627-2 (1955/2001)

Music composed and conducted by Elmer Bernstein. Orchestrations by Fred Steiner. Featured musical soloists Pete Condoll, Shorty Rogers and Shelly Manne. Score produced by Elmer Bernstein.

  1. frank
    May 8, 2017 at 1:49 pm

    A classic score. I like how Elmer Bernstein combines the finger snapp with the score, and also you can feel you are getting the jazz mode.

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