Darren McGavin, sexiest pusherman of all time?
That's a terrible question to ask, I suppose. I'm not making light of addiction. But let's not kid ourselves. There's a reason drugs seduce. It's because they feel so damn good. And eventually so damn bad. In Otto Preminger's The Man with the Golden Arm, McGavin's Louie looks good. And even better, he looks like he feels good. But as we know, just at first glance, he's a bad man with bad things. A bad man to know but a bad man we want to know.
McGavin's drug pushing Louie in Preminger’s seminal junkie picture, (adapted from Nelson Algren's novel, which I haven't read and may delve into Louie deeper) is one of my favorite roles by "The Night Stalker" star and one of his finest performances. And yet, it's one he’s probably least known for. Though Sinatra is the sparkling, strung-out star as drummer Frankie Machine, jonesing and shaking and horrifically withdrawing to the hilt (and he's good), it's McGavin who fascinates me.
Like the Big Bad Wolf dressed in dandy clothing, McGavin is sexy and predatory, charismatic and creepy, mysterious and so unabashedly blatant -- dangling all that sensuous smack in Frankie's face like a tormenting ex-lover. He promises just like an abusive manipulator when you're vulnerable and ready to feel something, anything. He knows you need him: "Oh, kicked it, wanna bet?" he taunts. "I mean it," says Frankie. Louie almost coos: "Sure, I'll be around."
Pushermen are always seducers and heroin orgasmic, I'm not discussing anything new, but I love that you see this best in a movie made in 1955. And that relationship is one between lovers. Heroin is the sex and Louie is all that hot and bothered foreplay. It's not a surprise Sinatra and McGavin look at each other with more than a hint of homoeroticism. They've got this sick, sexy chemistry going on. Everyone in the movie seems desirous of Frankie (including Arnold Stang's hero-worshipping style-cramper, Sparrow), but Sinatra and McGavin are the biggest turn-on. Frankie wants him. And when Frankie crosses the street to Louie's, relapsing to the determined jazzy score of Elmer Bernstein, Louie is waiting. He pulls down the shades. Frankie's ready to blast off. "The monkey is never dead, Dealer. The monkey never dies. When you kick him off, he just hides in a corner, waiting his turn." Indeed. He cannot miss a vein.