The career of Elmer Bernstein encompassed numerous genres—westerns, epics, comedies—but it was his use of jazz that first brought him attention. Bernstein had cut his jazz chops arranging for Glenn Miller’s Army Air Force Band during World War II. After a string of mostly forgettable films in the early 1950s, Bernstein composed his first major score for Otto Preminger’s THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM (1955). Based on Nelson Algren’s National Book Award-winning novel, the film stars Frank Sinatra as Frankie Machine—jazz drummer, card dealer, and heroin addict.
Utilizing Shorty Rogers’ All-Stars and a 65-piece orchestra, Bernstein’s score employed rhythmic elements and “certain [amounts] of the harmonic limitations that are inherent in jazz, but I never gave that free rein to the players, which is the thing that becomes jazz. So it was really a score that used jazz to color it.” Jack Hayes and Leo Shuken helped Bernstein arrange the cues with Rogers’ band and the orchestra. When the band played solo, particularly in Frankie’s audition scene, Rogers did the arrangements. Sinatra’s drumming was improvised and dubbed throughout the film by the legendary Shelly Manne.
In an interview with Cinema Journal, Bernstein said, “[Frankie] was a man who wanted to be a jazz drummer, so I tried to make that broad jazz theme speak for his ambition, and by giving it a sad quality it also implied his frustration. He was a tormented man, a narcotics addict, and there are sounds in jazz—blues, wails, trumpet screeches—that are perfect for expressing anguish.” The main title sets the mood immediately. As Roy M. Prendergast explains, the repetitive figure in the bass creates “a sense of drive and a kind of grinding, grim monotony,” while the triplet figures in the middle “merely continue in a hopeless circle and never arrive anywhere until the very end…and then only for a last cry of despair.”
Bernstein’s music inspired Saul Bass’ stark graphics for the film’s title sequence. Simple thin, white bars representing heroin needles poke into a stark black background, ending with the memorable image of an outstretched, jagged arm. The graphics further inspired the look for the film’s poster, soundtrack album, and trailer. Before this film, credits had been little more, as Bass once put it, than “words, badly lettered.” Bass’ credits changed all that.
“Out of respect for the field of jazz and the many gifted people who work in that field,” said Bernstein, “I must say I’ve never considered myself to have written a jazz score. I’ve written scores that have used certain elements of jazz.” In fact, he “lived to regret” the score’s “commercial success”: “[THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM] opened up something that went on for the longest period of time. Jazz was being used to score the most inappropriate things only because it was thought that it could make money.”