Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Thursday, July 21, 2016


Sailor Brett Halsey with good-time gal Susan Hayward
I WANT TO LIVE! (1958). Director: Robert Wise.

Barbara Graham (Susan Hayward), a prostitute and petty criminal, falls into bad company and finds herself arrested for the murder of a 61- year-old woman who supposedly kept cash in her house. One of Barbara's alleged confederates (James Philbrook) turns state's evidence and his testimony helps to convict her. Then it's on to death row ...  I Want to Live! was conceived as a heavily fictionalized anti-death penalty film, so it greatly stacks the deck in favor of Graham's innocence (not that the film suggests she should be executed if she were guilty), suppressing certain details and intimating it's only her reputation and background and her once being very nasty to a witness that have sealed her fate. Graham also makes the mistake of trying to bribe a fake witness who turns out to be a cop. Graham supposedly had a sexual affair with a fellow inmate, Rita (Marion Marshall), and while this is played down, it is pretty clear that Rita has a hankering for Barbara, whom she later betrays. As for Hayward, she comes off as much too well-bred to be a completely convincing "B" girl, so she substitutes toughness and crudity and on that level is quite effective, winning an Oscar (as did Robert Wise, whose direction is on the money). Of the supporting cast, there is notable work from Virginia Vincent as Barbara's lovely friend, Peg; Wesley Lau [Perry Mason] as Barbara's husband, Henry, who can't remember if she was home with him that certain night or not; Gage Clarke as the defense attorney, Tibrow; and Peter Breck as Peter Miranda, who claims he will set up an alibi for Barbara if she pays him but turns out to be a cop. Others in the cast include Brett Halsey [Return of the Fly], Lou Krugman, Theodore Bikel, Simon Oakland, and Joe De Santis [A Cold Wind in August].

The murder of Mabel Monahan is never depicted (in the fifties it would have been considered in poor taste anyway) and the woman herself is given short shrift. We never see any relatives she may have had, and the prosecutors are never developed as characters. In the long run it doesn't matter if Graham pistol whipped and suffocated her victim -- just the fact she was there and participated (if we are to believe this is true) makes her guilty in the eyes of the law. Apparently the prosecutors had very good reasons to think Graham was guilty that had nothing to do with her "morals."  The execution scene is very well-handled but it tries to extract pity for Graham without ever doing the same for her alleged victim, who died horribly in a terror that was probably worse than Graham's.

Verdict: Take with a grain of salt, but well-done for what it is. **1/2 out of 4.


angelman66 said...

Hi Bill, I do enjoy Hayward's performance in this film (especially when she's tough and crude and vulgar: "Yeah, my mothah!"), but I totally agree with your assessment of its weaknesses. Actually wish Miss Susan had won her Oscar for the far superior I'll Cry Tomorrow from 1955. (need to write about that one of these days!)

For crime dramas of this era, for me nothing can beat James Stewart and Lee Remick in Anatomy of a Murder, a much more gritty and daring storyline.

However, the final sequences of I Want to Live are indeed iconic, the whole preparation for the execution and the interminable waiting, the false alarms...that sequence truly is great filmmaking.

William said...

Yes, it is a memorable sequence. I haven't seen "Anatomy of a murder" in years and have put it on my list; thanks for the reminder.

Hayward is good but she's just sort of "acting" hard; she's not really well-cast (and a little too old), although I've heard Ms. Hayward was not exactly sweetness and light in real life!