I Want to Live!
Reviewed by Leonard Quart

Produced by Walter Wanger; directed by Robert Wise; screenplay by Nelson Gidding and Don Mankiewicz; based on the newspaper articles by Ed Montgomery and the letters of Barbara Graham; music by Johnny Mandel; cinematography by Lionel Lindon; edited by William Hornback; art direction by Edward Hasworth, starring Susan Hayward, Simon Oakland, Virginia Vincent, and Theodore Bikel. DVD, B&W, 121 min., 1958. A Kino Lorber release.

With his 1958 film, I Want to Live!, Robert Wise, two-time Oscar winner for Best Director (West Side Story and The Sound of Music), offers the “true story” of Barbara Graham (Susan Hayward), a prostitute who has been charged with the robbery and murder of an elderly widow in Los Angeles. Barbara, a quick-witted, good-looking redhead, is also cynical, a chain smoker, and self-destructive. The film stars Susan Hayward, an actress who was admired for her acting in intensely emotional melodramas like I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955). She augmented that reputation with her tempestuous, tough-talking performance here as Barbara, for which she won an Oscar. 

The film leaves out the real-life Graham’s earlier marriages and the two children of which one of her husbands gained custody. It centers on her later years and her execution for a murder for which she claimed she was innocent. The film’s opening scenes are formally striking in their use of black and white, oblique angles, a throbbing jazz score, and the depiction of a sleazy, neon-lit world of criminals, prostitutes, and drunken soldiers on leave. Barbara swaggers, snarls, drinks heavily, and lives a messy life close to the edge, but she is is just a marginal, unsuccessful player in this milieu. She feels no guilt about her behavior, and has created the hard, crass persona of a gangster’s moll, although Wise suggests there is a bit more to her then that. We see she has a strong need for domesticity—there is even a touch of vulnerability beneath the armored persona.

The craving for a family of her own moves her to blunder into a marriage with a bartender, Henry Graham (Wesley Lau), with whom she has a child. Graham turns out to be a junkie who becomes desperately dependent—living off Barbara—and is utterly antipathetic to his child. Barbara’s desire for a family turns into a living hell. Given her past—a traumatic childhood and adolescence including reform school, time in prison, prostitution, and heavy drinking—her desire for a conventional life is built more on fantasy than reality. She makes one wrong and unthinking choice after another, and the film offers no sign that an alternative life was ever possible for her, as it was for Barbara’s one loyal, caring friend in the film, Peg (Virginia Vincent). Vincent leaves little mark on the film, however, being utterly unconvincing as a fellow prostitute who is able to choose a domestic, law-abiding life.

Barbara Graham as Susan Hayward in I Want to Live!

Barbara Graham as Susan Hayward in I Want to Live!

Most of the rest of I Want to Live! takes place in court and in prison after Barbara is sentenced to be executed, and is shot in a straightforward, realistic style, except for an extremely tight close-up of the judge proclaiming her death sentence with terrifying vindictiveness, and one later scene in prison, shot from a bird’s-eye view, where Barbara wakes up screaming from a nightmare.

An inmate whom she pays to provide an alibi for the night of the murder betrays Barbara in prison, and she gains little support or comfort from other prisoners. The press (including radio and television news) also chews her up with a series of tabloid headlines, one of them reading “Queen of the Murder Mob,” and she is nicknamed “Bloody Babs.” Simon Oakland underplays the San Francisco reporter Ed Montgomery, who first exploited the story and crucified Barbara Graham in print and then attempted to undo the damage he had done. The screenplay is actually based on newspaper and magazine articles by Montgomery and on letters written by Graham.

A lengthy appeal process is set in motion, and for a while Barbara Graham maintains her wry wit and some of her belligerent persona. But she begins to emotionally collapse under the weight of a death sentence and the continuous barrage of newspaper attacks. The film views her death sentence as brought on as much by the public’s and the legal system’s condemnation of her wanton life style as for the crime she is accused of having committed. It was the Fifties, a time when a woman who lived a life like Graham’s would only arouse the public’s censure.

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. 

Wise never sentimentalizes Barbara. He knows she is no innocent. A psychologist who is helping her build a case, Carl G. G. Palmberg (Theodore Bikel), sees her as a smart woman who is amoral and has contempt for social institutions, but he doesn’t think she could commit an act of violence. That is the film’s perspective, and though it may not be the whole truth, it’s convincingly carried off. 

Wise is a true professional, and skillfully shifts the film stylistically from the noirish first half to the documentary realism of the second half. Hayward’s explosive performance dominates the film, making every viewer riveted on her. It means that almost every other character is turned into an extra, devoid of individuality. That’s the film’s primary flaw, but it’s nevertheless a solid work whose social critique still has a great impact. 

Leonard Quart is a Cineaste contributing editor and author or co-author of several books on film.

To purchase I Want to Live!, click here.

Copyright © 2016 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XLI, No. 2