I Want to Live! (1958)
July 2, 2018 6:06 PM - Subscribe

A prostitute, sentenced to death for murder, pleads her innocence.

Noir of the Week: The trailer for Robert Wise's I Want to Live (1958) emphasizes three things: sex, Susan Hayward emoting heavily, and a great jazz soundtrack. However the film delivers much more in its depiction of convicted murderer Barbara Graham. It opens with a signed testimonial from Pulitzer Prize-winning report Edward S. Montgomery, declaring the film “factual,” and citing his series of articles in the San Francisco Examiner as the source material. The film's dramatic authenticity, however, does not stem from slavish depiction of facts, but from the complex view it takes of Graham, its examination of how and why she's convicted, and its unflinching look at the death penalty.

Empire: Susan Hayward was alone in converting one of the six Oscar nominations bestowed upon this earnest biopic of convicted killer Barbara Graham.

Hayward was never the subtlest of actresses, yet she admirably conveys the shift from wisecracking broad to terrified patsy as the prospect of the gas chamber inexorably becomes a reality. Robert Wise's edgy use of close-ups and Johnny Mandel's nuanced jazz score also play their part in this transition. But Wise's direction is inconsistent, with the tension often being allowed to slacken, most notably while psychiatrist Theodore Bikel and journalist Simon Oakland attempt to prove that Hayward was framed.

Cineaste: Wise’s film suggests she is innocent, but that remains open to question, and she probably was a collaborator in the crime, if not the actual murderer. The film’s emphasis is less on her guilt or innocence, however, than on the odiousness of the death penalty. Wise was a skilled craftsman who made thirty-nine films in his long career and directed films in almost every genre—horror, science fiction, musicals, boxing, etc. He was also a lifelong liberal, whose films touched on and criticized racism, corporate power, the dangers of nuclear and biological weapons, and powerfully, in this film, capital punishment.

I Want to Live! is most harrowing when Barbara is transferred to death row at San Quentin to await execution. Wise details, without a touch of sensationalism, the meticulous step-by-step preparation of the gas chamber. It’s an inhumane process, and most of Barbara’s defenses break down in solitary. In her anguish, she becomes a more sympathetic figure, and even establishes a friendship with a sensitive nurse in her last days. Her final hours are especially tortuous, as the execution is stayed a couple of times, until she is led from her cell and strapped into the gas chamber. Her last words are “Good people are always so sure they’re right,” powerfully reinforcing the film’s indictment of capital punishment.


Apparently streaming on this sketchy site with gross ads.

The Story of Barbara Graham in Robert Wise’s I Want to Live! (1958)
posted by MoonOrb (1 comment total)
I do enjoy watching Rita tear up the scenery in this movie. The '50s version of a "tough cookie" is typical for the era, but the detailed execution process and the way Haywood reacts as the clock ticks down are tense.
posted by TrishaU at 1:50 AM on July 5, 2018

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