Frankie Machine (Sinatra) is a card dealer and a drug addict. (The drug is never actually named, but by all indications, it's heroin.) Frankie has just been released from a six-month stint in jail, and, now clean, is looking for a new life as a drummer in a band. However, Zero Schwiefka, who organizes the illegal poker games that Frankie used to deal for, wants Frankie back in the fold. Frankie doesn't want to deal cards anymore as that was a trigger for his heroin habit, but his needy wife Zosh (Parker), who is in a wheelchair after Frankie crashed their car while driving drunk, wants the easy money. Frankie's old girlfriend Molly (Novak) is much more supportive of Frankie's hopes to go straight.
Schweifka winds up getting Frankie chucked in jail for shoplifting, and after bailing Frankie out, gets Frankie to go back to dealing cards. Zosh—who has a dark secret of her own—badgers Frankie and hassles him about money and discourages him from making something of himself as a drummer. The local heroin dealer, Louie, is trying to get Frankie back on heroin. Finally Frankie cracks under the strain and starts using again. Tragedy ensues.
While drug use had been used for comedy as far back as 1916 and The Mystery of the Leaping Fish, and marijuana was demonized in the 1930s by ridiculous B-movies like Reefer Madness, this film was one of the first Hollywood productions to deal with drug addiction in a serious manner.
Based on a novel by Nelson Algren. Elmer Bernstein composed the score.
- The Aggressive Drug Dealer: Louie the heroin dealer is awfully aggressive in trying to get former addict Frankie to use again. Justified in that Louie is also involved with a lucrative illegal underground poker game, Frankie is a skilled dealer, and the heroin is a means of control to bind Frankie to Louie and get him into the poker game. Notably, not only is he an aggressive drug dealer he's a full-service drug dealer, actually administering the injections himself rather than just selling Frankie some dope.
- The Alcoholic: Molly seems to be drawn to men with substance abuse problems. Johnny, the man she hooked up with after Frankie went to jail, is a drunk.
- Cigarette of Anxiety: When the cravings for heroin get so bad that Frankie's hands start shaking, he has to leave the card game for a nervous smoke.
- Comforting Comforter: Frankie very carefully tucks Molly in.
- Disney Villain Death: Ends with Zosh careening off a fire escape of the boarding house to her death.
- Drugs Are Bad: They are, they are very bad.
- Establishing Character Moment: Louie is established as a first-class scumbag when, at a bar, he forces a pathetic drunk to dance for a drink.
- Family-Friendly Stripper: Well, it was the 1950s. The girls at the strip club seem to be content with dancing in a bra-and-girdle ensemble.
- Have a Gay Old Time: When Louie finds out Zosh can walk, he thinks she has a scam going. He says "Let me in on it, or I'll queer it for you."
- Internal Reveal: About 20 minutes in, the audience finds out that Zosh isn't paralyzed at all. She can walk perfectly well, but is pretending to be paralyzed and racked with pain to keep a guilt-ridden Frankie with her, rather than have him leave her for Molly.
- Red Light District: There's dive bars and pawnshops, the streets are littered with garbage, and Molly works in a strip club (as a hostess, not a stripper). Preminger really pushes the envelope of 1950s censorship, though, when he frames the sign above a pool hall to say "OOKER".
- Sweater Girl: Molly decides to up the Fanservice a little bit by putting on the standard tight sweater and then undoing three of the five buttons.
- Sympathetic Adulterer: Frankie, cheating on his lying, manipulative wife.
- Title Drop: A gambler greets Frankie with "Are you Machine? The man with the golden arm, huh?"
- Toxic Friend Influence: Toxic wife influence, as Zosh manipulates Frankie and steers him back into the bad habits that led him to heroin the first time.
- Your Mom: One of the other tenants in the boarding house mixes this with Country Matters. When the cranky landlord says she has to do what he says, she shoots back "Your mother's icebox, I do what you say!"