I Want to Live! (1958)


(director: Robert Wise; screenwriters: Nelson Gidding/Don Mankiewicz//Barbara Graham (letters)/Ed Montgomery; cinematographer: Lionel Lindon; editor: William Hornbeck; music: John Mandel; cast: Susan Hayward (Barbara Graham), Simon Oakland (Ed Montgomery), Virginia Vincent (Peg), Theodore Bikel (Carl G. G. Palmberg), Wesley Lau (Henry L. Graham), Lou Krugman (Jack Santo), Philip Coolidge (Emmett Perkins), Joe De Santis (Al Matthews), Raymond Bailey (San Quentin warden); Runtime: 120; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Walter Wanger; United Artists; 1958)

“Serves as a telling indictment of capital punishment.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Director Robert Wise(“The Sand Pebbles”/”The Sound of Music”) turns his attention to the gritty realistic hard-hitting biopic about the West Coast small-time crook, drug addict and prostitute Barbara Graham, played by Susan Hayward, the good time party girl for the underworld types who was executed for a crime she most likely did not do (there’s the opinion offered that she was framed by two acquaintances who were trying to save their own asses). Mabel Monahan, an eighty-year-old widow (in the film they said she was 61 and crippled), was found brutally murdered in her Burbank home, on March 9, 1953. Burglars followed through on the rumor that Monahan had hidden $100,000 in her house and pistol-whipped her to death for not telling; the police apprehended four suspects in the Los Angeles suburb of Inwood – Barbara Graham and three male accomplices – and charged them with murder. Graham was prosecuted even though she had an alibi that she was with her husband the night of the murder and was further persecuted by the press more for her sordid past than for any apparent evidence. Unfortunately, her husband disappeared, never to be found again, and Graham, in a state of anxiety, got trapped by a wired undercover cop into accepting an offer of an alibi. After a guilty verdict, Graham was sentenced to death. Her lawyers were unsuccessful in overturning the verdict in appeal and she was executed in the gas chamber of San Quentin on June 3, 1955. Interestingly enough, Hayworth after filming was questioned and said she thought Graham was guilty. The LA police condemned the film as rubbish. But civil libertarians held it up as a clear-cut case of someone being railroaded by the system. The film doesn’t tell us enough to really decide one way or the other, but with so much doubt one can’t help wondering if there should have been an execution.

Hayward deservedly snagged an Oscar for Best Actress. She took the part to return a favor to producer Walter Wanger for giving her a break in films when she needed it most in the beginning of her career. Wanger’s career was slipping after being imprisoned for shooting a Hollywood executive who was having an affair with his wife Constance Bennett, and this pic meant everything to him. The low-budget intense courtroom drama serves as a telling indictment of capital punishment (and, for that matter, the judicial system), as even though Graham is portrayed as an anti-social character who hung out with a nasty crowd of lowlifes she might have been convicted solely because of her prior rap sheet for prostitution, perjury and forgery. The last half-hour is thoroughly mesmerizing, as Wise takes us into the gas chamber and the frightening images of the execution stay with you in a hauntingly powerful way.

The true story was based on the letters of Graham and San Francisco Examiner newspaper writer Ed Montgomery’s articles; they were used by writers Nelson Gidding and Don Mankiewicz to develop the Oscar-nominated screenplay. Adding to the moody realistic atmosphere is a classic jazz score by John Mandel performed by Gerry Mulligan and his combo.

In supporting roles, the following should be singled out for fine performances: Theodore Bikel as a psychiatrist, Lou Krugman and Philip Coolidge as criminals, Joe De Santis as Graham’s last attorney, Simon Oakland as newspaper man Montgomery, and Raymond Bailey as the San Quentin warden.