Well, this is all certainly reforming my impression of Frank Sinatra.
Sinatra stars as “Frankie Machine,” a former dealer from an illegal gambling den. He’s returning home to Chicago at the start of the movie, fresh out of rehab and with some contacts to discuss a potential audition to break into a career as a drummer. But his old cronies aren’t too pleased with that – Schwiefka (Robert Strauss), his old boss, keeps pestering him to come deal cards for him again, going so far as to enlist Frankie’s old dealer Louie (Darren McGavin) to tempt him back into a drug habit. Frankie’s wife Zosh (Eleanor Parker) also tries persuading him to take his old job back up – it was illegal work, but it was lucrative work, and she’s used to the income. Zosh is also pathologically afraid that Frankie will leave her – so much so that she is pretending to be an invalid, relying on sympathy to get Frankie to stay. (That’s not a spoiler, by the way – we see this during the first ten minutes.)
The only person who seems to be wholly on Frankie’s side is Molly (Kim Novak), an old girlfriend who still lives in town. Molly and Frankie are still soft on each other, but Frankie feels too much of an obligation to Zosh. Still, Molly is Frankie’s biggest supporter – she’s the one person who talks him into pursuing the drumming audition instead of going back to work for Schwiefka, and makes it her crusade to stop Frankie from lapsing back into drugs again. Still, Frankie’s nerves grow as the audition draws near, and between that and the pressure from Zosh, Frankie’s old habit seems awfully tempting…
Frank Sinatra took this role really seriously; and it shows. He took drumming lessons from a studio drummer, and spent several days visiting rehab clinics to observe and talk to recovering heroin addicts so he could understand what cravings and withdrawl symptoms felt like. Two sequences he shares with Kim Novak are stunningly well-acted, in particular a sequence where he goes through withdrawl cold turkey after suffering a mid-film relapse. The temptation for any actor with such a scene would be to go through a whole lot of Big Acting histrionics – and while Frankie does tear the room up a bit, it’s still feels genuine rather than overdone. Novak also shines in an earlier scene where she has a hunch Frankie is about to relapse, and deftly distracts him, keeping Frankie going for just a little bit longer.
The only complaint I have is that the script felt a tiny bit histrionic. Not that I expected a story about drug addicts and the criminal underworld would be a restrained drawing-room comedy; but some of the dialogue seemed a little flowery and melodramatic, particularly with Zosh. Just a bit – one more draft would probably have fixed it. I was also strangely distracted by the earlier exterior scenes, since it was really obvious they were filmed on a stage set. I was actually so unimpressed after the first 20 minutes I paused the film to go make dinner. But Sinatra and Novak won me back around, and I just wish they’d had a slightly better script to work with.