Rescuing the Author from the Auteur, or Why I Will Never Call the Preminger Abomination by its “Title”

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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.

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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?

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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 [1970] 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.

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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.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    24th/11/2008 to 6:48 am

    I saw this back around 82 or 83 on TBS, with commercials. That’s my sole experience with this film and twenty-five years later I can’t remember much. I do have a cover of the score performed by saxophonist Terence Blanchard that I love. Aside from that I don’t remember much and I’ve never read the book so I’d like to know what parts of the film were problematic for you. Not specifically, but generally speaking, is the problem that it doesn’t follow the story of the book, changes character motivations, gives it a different ending, etc.?
    Although I’ve never been a big fan of Sinatra the actor, he would seem to have the right body type for an addict. I remember reading that they wanted Brando for the role but he seems too brawny for a heroin addict. Aside from body type and despite his nomination, Sinatra didn’t leave an impression on me in the role, nor did that “exemplar of gritty realism Kim Novak” (best line in a review ever). Sinatra was far too mechanical an actor (for me) to succeed in this kind of role. When I watch From Here to Eternity, with which I am much more familiar, I can see him practising little wiseguy New Yorker mannerisms in front of the mirror before the cameras roll. With Sinatra, I’m often taken out of the movie with the feeling of “look at me I’m acting” all over the performance.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    24th/11/2008 to 7:28 am

    Sinatra definitely does the “Look Ma, I’m acting” bit in this film, but I’m not sure that displeased Preminger at all. His cold turkey withdrawal scene is an hysteric’s dream (it’s on YouTube if you want to check it out). He never goes on the nod when he’s fixed; he’s raring for action, as when he goes to a drumming audition hopped up. Algren couldn’t believe the hot dog, inaccurate performance was Oscar-nominated, though anyone who really follows the Oscars would have no trouble believing it at all.
    Preminger blames Zosh for the murder that Frankie commits in the book; on the run, betrayed by his best friend, Frankie hangs himself at the end of Algren’s tale. Junkies don’t just clean up and walk into the sunset with Kim Novak.
    I like Elmer Bernstein’s compositions for the film, but that really has nothing to do with author vs. auteur integrity. I think somewhere we have to draw a line and say art should not be cannibalized, destroyed, made to say the opposite of what it says because someone else wants to make a buck or a statement of his or her own. Write an original screenplay in that case; leave the author alone.
    In case you’re wondering where this all came from, I saw two mentions of the film online over the last few days – one just in passing, the other in praise. The hubby said I had this essay inside me a long time waiting to come out. I guess he was right.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    24th/11/2008 to 9:00 am

    Preminger blames Zosh for the murder that Frankie commits in the book; on the run, betrayed by his best friend, Frankie hangs himself at the end of Algren’s tale. Junkies don’t just clean up and walk into the sunset with Kim Novak.
    Amazing. That’s a seismic shift in character and story. I would have love to seen a darker version with Garfield where he does hang himself at the end.
    I think somewhere we have to draw a line and say art should not be cannibalized, destroyed, made to say the opposite of what it says because someone else wants to make a buck or a statement of his or her own. Write an original screenplay in that case; leave the author alone.
    I have felt that way so many times where a movie so dramatically changes story and motivation that I feel, “Why not just write your own story with your own characters?” Of course, the reason is they want the movie attached to a proven, best-selling prior work, but it doesn’t lessen the insult by any means. And from your brief description of just a couple of changes, it sounds like an outright insult to Algren.

  • Fox spoke:
    24th/11/2008 to 10:21 am

    I haven’t read this book or seen the movie but this sure was an entertaining & interesting piece of info. that I was unaware of.
    I have a question though…
    Was Algren involved with the sale of his book to the production company? Meaning, did he have a say in selling the rights? Because, if so, it’s hard for me to have sympathy for a disgruntled author. If you sold it, it’s gone.
    It sounds like the death of Garfield complicated things and set them off on the wrong path. But, contractually, did Algren have any right to the screenplay or any general cretaive input of the film?

  • Rick spoke:
    24th/11/2008 to 10:48 am

    So, I saw this so long ago I might as well not have seen it. But they do list Algren as the first recipient of the NBA at their web-site (go to http://www.nationalbook.org/nba1950.html), just not in their little historical write up. Do you think it’s intentional? And if so, why?
    This is a fascinating essay, Marilyn.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    24th/11/2008 to 10:56 am

    OK, this is how it went (source, Bettina Drew’s biography of Algren):
    Algren sold the rights to Garfield and his business partner (the ironically named Bob Roberts). Roberts sold the rights to Preminger. Algren found out about the sale from his agent 6 months after the fact. “Whatever his thoughts about the dubious legalities of the sale, his immediate concerns were screenplay money and ensuring the success of an off-Broadway production of The Man with the Golden Arm that Jack Kirkland of Tobacco Road fame was planning to stage. Algren had doubts the movie could even be made under the narcotics ban, but was sure it could hurt the chances of the play, from which both he and Kirkland stood to profit. When Preminger offered him a thousand a week for the four weeks or so it would take to write a screenplay, he accepted, hoping to perhaps slow the movie down a bit until the play was produced. It was dirty money, but he wanted to get to Paris [MY NOTE: He carried on a decades-long, passionate love affair with Simone de Beauvoir]; and in his gambler’s mind, money was more of an obstacle than the denial of his passport.”
    “Algren stepped off the train in Los Angeles innocently believing he would have a respected voice in the making of the movie, assuming that since Preminger had liked the story enough to buy it, he would be sympathetic to Frankie Machine and would want to make a good film.”
    …”The honeymoon with Otto, who had a reputation for emotionally torturing artists, didn’t last long. First, Preminger changed his mind about the money. The thousand a week was out…Preminger told Mary Baker of the Jaffe Agency, ‘If he wants $500 okey. Otherwise he can get on the train and go home.”
    Algren was dismissed after a week. “So Algren, who had been promised a thousand a week for four weeks or longer wound up having to fight, through his agent, just to have his expenses paid. And he suspected that Preminger had never had any idea of including him in the project at all. ‘I think the idea was that, when two people make a deal about a contract in which three persons are involved, something has to be done about the third party eventually–you’d have to make some gesture of including him in in the event of legal kickbacks.”

  • Marilyn spoke:
    24th/11/2008 to 11:12 am

    Thanks, Rick. I just think it’s strange that on a page the lists a number of other recipients of the award, like the more respectable Saul Bellow, Algren doesn’t even get a mention. It may not be intentional, but as I said, it certainly is gauche.

  • MovieMan0283 spoke:
    24th/11/2008 to 5:00 pm

    This is a great write-up; I really enjoyed reading it. I have not seen the movie, I have not read the book, I am not particularly a fan of Preminger – I enjoyed Laura, found Anatomy of a Murder disturbingly flippant and scattershot, and haven’t seen much else.
    But I’m fascinated by your analysis and deconstruction (no, Bordwell, I’m not using that word correctly – sue me) of the adaptation principle. I think what’s needed from critics is a more fluid, flexible approach to this problem. We’re generally told that scolding movies for how they adapt the books (and, to a lesser extent, how they adhere to facts) is poor form, that all that matters is the filmmaker’s vision. There is some truth to this.
    A filmmaker should not be bound by the text; he should feel free to improvise and make changes accordingly. But at the same time, perhaps there is then a duty on the filmmaker’s part to be honest about what he’s doing – and not to, as Preminger apparently did here, appropriate the writer’s work and legacy while, as you so aptly put it, “raping” both. Changing the title, using “inspired by…” rather than “based on…” in the credits; these would perhaps be a good start. Set the groundwork for its appreciation as a “variation on a theme” – something Godard was expert at – rather than a faithful adaptation.
    A film’s – really, any work of art’s – relationship to both its source and to reality are complex, more complex that it’s given credit for. On one side are the fogeys – purists, puritans, scolds, and other assorted fuddy-duddys – who don’t get movies, but they’ve long ago been escorted off the premises of respectable film scholarship. On the other are the long-victorious but still vigilant defenders of art for art’s sake, shielded by the credo “anything goes.” Somewhere in between, I suspect, is the truth of the matter.
    Well, you’ve gotten these wheels turning – so thanks for that.

  • Rod spoke:
    24th/11/2008 to 7:24 pm

    Don’t ever watch Walk On The Wild Side. It makes Preminger’s Golden Arm look like Lean’s Great Expectations. There’s Barbara Stanwyck as the evil butch dyke brothel madame trying to keep Capucine as her love slave with her gimp army, Jane Fonda as a tomboy hooker, and Laurence Harvey as good ole boy Dove Linkhorn. Whenever the camera goes into close-up on Capucine the photography changes from high chiarascuro to vaseline blur. And that’s in spite of having John Fante and Ben Hecht work on the script.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    24th/11/2008 to 9:22 pm

    Rod, I have seen Walk. It has the best opening sequence perhaps of any film I’ve seen. But yes, the film’s a hash – especially Capucine. Nonetheless, it at least tells the story (with minor modifications) that Algren did.
    MovieMan – Preminger was “inspired by” a desire to make money and show he had more power than the MPAA. Algren had little to do with it. I would never scold a filmmaker for having a vision derivative of another artist and following it; indeed, where would Euripides have been without Aeschylus, or Richard Strauss without Wagner, or David Lynch without Luis Bunuel. The relationship of the writer and the director, however, is a fraught and unequal one – always has been if the director is not also the writer. This relationship, to me, is quaint at best and tyrannical at worst. I don’t think it is the film critic who needs to be flexible, but rather the creatives who need to find a more harmonious way of collaborating.

  • Pat spoke:
    25th/11/2008 to 8:44 am

    Marilyn-
    Great piece, very intriguing subject. While I’m not familiar with “Man with the Golden Arm” in any of its incarnations, I’m always interested in a discussion of how books are adpated into films – what works, what doesn’t, what liberties are right and fair for the filmmakers to take and which aren’t. Your post is very illuminating on those topics.
    (Not to totally digress, but I’m sort of holding my breath right now to see what Sam Mendes does with/to “Revolutionary Road.”)

  • bill r. spoke:
    27th/11/2008 to 9:20 am

    This is great, Marilyn, even though I, too, have never read the book or seen the film. But now I want to do both. I think you should do more of these comparisons. I plan to do some myself down the line, but if you should make this a semi-regular feature, I think I’ll end up liking yours more.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    27th/11/2008 to 9:59 am

    Thanks, Bill. I have started a Nobel on Film series, but I’m a very slow reader, so it’s not going very well right now. I’ve done One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Blue Bird.

  • Christine Guilfoyle spoke:
    29th/12/2008 to 7:00 am

    Hi Marilyn and posters
    This is all really great reading for me. I’ve just started a PhD on Nelson Algren’s representation(s) of women in his novels, poems, essays and at some point I will be writing about these film adaptations for what they tell us about ‘acceptable’ roles for women in US society in 50’s and 60’s. Most of the changes from novel to film concerned the women. E.g. in the film ‘Man’, Zosh’s disability becomes a total fabrication of hers in order to entrap Frankie. The novel’s ambiguity on this score is used by the screenwriter who eventually uses this detail to change the plot entirely with Zosh’s suicide. The novelistic Zosh would never have had the strength or the desire to do something as positive as to throw herself off the balcony.
    As for ‘Walk’, nowhere in the novel is there a lesbian madame, and as for Dove going to New Orleans to seek out Hallie, having nursed his sick mother till she died (if I remember rightly) – the very idea is ridiculous! I think the characterisation of Dove made me laugh the most in the film.. a total joke – like the whole film, for me. Apparently, having been thoroughly disgusted by the mess Preminger made of ‘Man’ Algren never even went to see ‘Walk’. I hope he didn’t.
    I’m also convinced that these films were negative advertising for Algren’s novels. Who’d have wanted to read the novels or anything else Algren wrote after seeing these films?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    29th/12/2008 to 7:49 am

    Christine,
    Thank you so much for stopping by. If we’ve added anything to your dissertation, it is a pleasure. I think you have an interesting topic, and I’d certainly like to read it when you’re finished.
    One thing I think you should check into is the box office reception of these films. I don’t think you’ll find that they were negative. In fact, the Preminger Abomination is rather well regarded even today. I believe the films reflected the times rather well. For example, lying murderess Zosh is punished. Frankie, for reforming, is rewarded with the lovely Molly, who is a hostess, not a stripper or prostitute, i.e., a good woman. This is something you’ll find throughout films after 1934’s Production Code went into effect. Evil must be punished, and good is often rewarded.

  • Mike O spoke:
    1st/11/2009 to 4:43 am

    Concerning novelists who sell the rights to their novels, I believe Woody Allen summed up the whole situation in five words:
    Take The Money and Run.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    1st/11/2009 to 7:14 am

    Mike – If you read the comments thread, you will see that Nelson Algren did not sell the rights to Preminger – he sold them to John Garfield. He was cut out of the deal that saw his book fall into the wrong hands.

  • Adam Zanzie spoke:
    7th/02/2010 to 1:57 am

    Speaking as a fan of the film, I admit that you have an advantage over me in this argument, Marilyn, since you have read Algren’s novel and I have not.
    I’ll be the first to admit that The Man With the Golden Arm has problems. The ending (the suicide) was over-the-top. Still, I like the audacity of the project; if Laura is Preminger’s masterwork, than Man With the Golden Arm might be defined as his “flawed great film”.
    Sometimes I avoid novels because I fear that they will taint my enjoyment of the film adaptations. For example, I’m such a De Palma fanboy that I went and watched Bonfire of the Vanities before reading the Wolfe novel. Everybody says the film is a bastardization of Wolfe’s prose. I have no reason to deny it. I am sure Wolfe’s book is extraordinary. But because I liked De Palma’s film all the same, I don’t feel much of an urge to open a new can of worms just so that I can see what the film doesn’t have.
    I’m like that with other films, too, including Barry Lyndon and Short Cuts. Why should I care if Kubrick and Altman weren’t 100% faithful to Thackeray and Carver? If their films say something profound, then consider me satisfied.
    On the other hand, as one who admires Spielberg’s adaptation of The Color Purple, one of these days I’m planning to read Alice Walker’s book just to see how much of the raunchy stuff didn’t make its way onscreen.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    7th/02/2010 to 7:42 am

    Adam – Let me put it this way. There’s more to life than making an entertaining movie. It seems to me that not cannibalizing someone’s work without his consent is a greater good than making a film.

  • D Cairns spoke:
    11th/12/2013 to 10:21 am

    I think we can blame Preminger for treating Algren abominably (part of a long history he had as torturer), and blame Algren’s agent for not securing a cast-iron contract before letting Algren take the train. We can blame Algren a little for naivety. And we can blame Preminger for making a film that isn’t as good as the book, but I wouldn’t want to take away his right to make his own version of the novel he’d bought.

    I was kind of amazed at how dark the movie is — of course, they’ve tricked it up with a happy, or hopeful ending and that’s betrayal of the novel’s worldview, but what other films from this period explore such an oppressive, shabby and tragic world? I have a strong suspicion the film would have ended up even milder if anyone else had filmed it at this time.

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