The Man With the Golden Arm

There’s a lot of competition for this honor—movies as various as The Untouchables (1987) and Chicago (2002) have offered up strange, confectionary visions of the city—but the most compelling fake Chicago in movie history was created on the RKO back lot for Otto Preminger’s 1955 adaptation of the Nelson Algren novel. “The book dealt with life at the bottom,” Algren later complained. “Otto has never, not for as much as a single day, had any experience except that of life at the top.” As a result Algren’s carefully observed detail of West Division Street goes out the window, replaced by a hallucinatory cityscape that’s more like a figment of the characters’ twisted psychology. The streets are wide and curving, and they intersect at odd angles foreign to any grid we know; the corners are clogged with constellations of round neon signs, more like a carnival midway than the Polish west side. The Man With the Golden Arm is best known now for having flouted the movie production code in its depiction of heroin addicts, though you’d have to be pretty high to think the movie is taking place here. —J.R. Jones