Rescuing the Author from the Auteur, or Why I Will Never Call the Preminger Abomination by its “Title”
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In 1949, Nelson Algren published his literary masterpiece, The Man with the Golden Arm. It won the very first National Book Award in 1950 and caught the attention of John Garfield, whose production company bought the rights to make the film version. Algren produced a script, but Garfield died before the production got off the ground. In 1954, Otto Preminger discovered the book and decided it would be the perfect thing for him to use to break the back of the Production Code against the depiction of drug addition in films. After dismissing Algren and his script, Preminger hired Walter Newman, a talented writer who worked in radio and had collaborated with Billy Wilder on the screenplay for Wilder’s gritty, cynical masterwork Ace in the Hole (1951). When Preminger’s film was released in 1955, Frank Sinatra played the protagonist Frankie “Machine” Majcinek, an ex-GI with a golden arm for dealing cards, a dream of maybe becoming a drummer, and perhaps most deterministic of all, a monkey on his back.
I quote from Chris Fujiwara’s book The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger, (2008, Faber and Faber) by way of Noir of the Week to give some background on the short acquaintance of Preminger and Algren:
Algren’s unsuccessful association with the film was a personal catastrophe that, according to his biographer, Bettina Drew, “marked a turning point in Algren’s life.” 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. Oblivious to Algren’s enmity, Preminger merely said, “He was an amusing, intelligent man but he couldn’t write dialogue or visualize scenes.” Algren countered: “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.
Algren’s enmity was not misplaced. Preminger, the most producerly of directors, could be said to have followed a formula the poet e.e. cummings noted after his encounter with an editor at Reader’s Digest: “Eight to 80, anyone can do it, makes you feel good.” The gut-wrenching story of failure and life on the skids Algren had poured his experience, heart, and talent into was transformed into a tale of redemption brought on by self-reliance and the love of a good woman. The woman Algren created as Frankie’s soft shoulder was Molly “O” Novatny, a 20-year-old stripper and occasional prostitute with gradual decline and decay written all over her. In Preminger’s film, she is played by that exemplar of gritty realism, Kim Novak, as a woman who didn’t seem to do much of anything to make a living, giving her plenty of time to save Frankie from himself and his shrewish wife Zosh, played by Eleanor Parker.
OK, sure, I’m just another reader complaining about an unfaithful screen adaptation of one of her favorite novels. Happens all the time. Why should this book’s treatment merit special attention? Why should this film, which a lot of people really like, come in for particular scorn?
I think this is a special case, and not because Nelson Algren was reviled by many and condescended to by others (in its amazing gaucheness, the history section of the National Book Award’s website doesn’t even mention him or his book). I’m not here to defend Algren and his place in literature—only the integrity of his vision and the respect that it ought to have received from Preminger. Instead, the director chose to make a Hollywood picture with Hollywood stars and a Hollywood ending. He could have done that with hundreds of books. He chose The Man with the Golden Arm because he wanted to blow a raspberry at the Production Code—it’s just that simple. He, like so very many other producers and directors, had no use for the lives Algren felt worthy of notice. Even today, you won’t find the kind of lives Algren wrote about much in film unless they are created by documentarians, directors interested in gawking at the seamy side of life without really understanding the people they seem to care about, or occasionally, by our most sensitive film artists (Akira Kurosawa’s Dodes’ka-den  comes to mind). Newman is a case in point:
Newman … said, “I worked very hard to use as much of the book as I could, as many of the people, as much of the dialogue, as many of the incidents as I could—except that I turned them upside down.”
The care Newman took to retain details from the book, something he seems very proud of, unfortunately means absolutely nothing when placed against the emotional dishonesty of the script he produced. According to Fujiwara’s book
Newman enjoyed working with Preminger: “I found him to be endlessly patient, always courteous.” After about a month of research and another month of writing, Newman gave Preminger his first 50 pages of script. After reading them, Preminger called Newman and said, “I’m delighted,” which Newman considered “extraordinary behavior for a director or a producer. Almost all of them, at this point, would have begun the conversation by saying, without even a hello, ‘On page eleven there’s a misplaced comma—on page fourteen I don’t understand the motivation’—and so on and so on. This is Standard Operating Procedure and it’s meant to put the screenplay writer in his place—in other words, to put him down.”
It’s pretty obvious that this kind of rank pulling wasn’t necessary: Preminger had already put a writer in his place by throwing his book and screenplay out the window and finding another guy who was compliant to his world view for the film.
Why does it matter? There are any number of reasons, but the one I’m struck by always is that Algren’s people weren’t happy, weren’t given chances or choices, always seemed to find a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. This is a vision completely at odds with the film Otto Preminger produced. It is utterly ridiculous for a director to take a title, character names, certain situations, and drug addiction and slap them around until they’re more shattered than the face on the barroom floor. This misappropriation, this identity theft must be noted. An auteur does not have the right to compromise an author with a genuine vision, a vision that differs so drastically from his own. There is license and then there is rape; it’s clear to me what this “adaptation” was.
The people Nelson Algren wrote about have few champions in this world. They’re the rummies and chippies and suckers and sinners who never get an even break. The fact that Preminger, in his zeal to exploit the lot of the junkie for the entertainment of a curious and ignorant middle-class audience, stomped all over this underclass yet again, creates, to my mind, a problem of legitimacy in the auteur theory. Should a film auteur be allowed to practice cannibalism? No, no way.