I Want to Live! is another film I had earmarked for my TCM Top Twelve in May, nice to know I’m slowly working my way through something two months old. Either way, I Want to Live is cited as the quintessential Susan Hayward film and I had high expectations for it, especially considering it’s directed by Robert Wise who has made my favorite films including The Sound of Music and West Side Story. With that said, I liked I Want to Live! but I didn’t love it. A lot of this was due to the fact that having read the Barbara Graham story there was just too much sugar-coating in this film, even by TCM host Robert Osborne who introduced it! They don’t make Graham (Hayward) a saint, but they definitely portray her as a woman of bad circumstances which I didn’t connect with. In the end all I was left saying was “That was okay, wished it had been better.”
Barbara Graham (Hayward) is a wanton woman drawn to bad men and bad situations. When she’s collared as a suspect in a murder charge Graham assumes she’ll get off. Instead she’s convicted and set to be executed.
Before I start with the review, I Want to Live! comes with the caveat of being a highly fictionalized and disputed look at the life of Barbara Graham. It’s better if you don’t know anything about the woman or the crime so you won’t be shifted into a verdict one way or another and that seems to be the only way to truly like the film. Journalists and others who covered the case found this movie to be a disservice to the poor woman murdered and mentioned that much was removed from the film including evidence that firmly proved Graham’s guilt.
I didn’t know all this right off the bat so I figured it wouldn’t bother me but it did. Before all that let me say that seeing this as my first Susan Hayward film, I liked her. She plays Barbara as brassy and clever; able to juggle men without their knowledge and coming from the penal system Barbara is incredibly intelligent. There’s also a stalwart sense of loyalty to her character, the need to “never let her pals down” even though they’re criminals. As the film progresses and Barbara’s trial is ongoing one could say it proves there’s no honor amongst thieves but Barbara tries to change that.
On the surface one could compare Graham to a film noir femme fatale. She’s involved with numerous men, has little issue with committing crime, and while she is a wife and mother she’s not comfortable in that role not to mention the obvious plot point of being punished for her actions. You can see the society during this time period (too late for the apple pie 1950s but too early for the sexual revolution of the 1960s) when the woman at the prison tells Barbara to “get a job. Get married.” As if it’s easy to turn one’s life around with employment and/or a husband and yet that remains the two options for women to “stay out of trouble.” These band-aids are easier said than done and I didn’t feel the film explored society’s role on Graham’s fall from grace. Sure there’s no need to, Graham had the choice whether to commit crime or not, but considering the options present it would have been a solid talking point.
Societal influence is probably best seen through the eyes of the numerous addictions given to each character. Barbara’s husband who we meet is a drug addict, willing to throw his family’s last ten dollars away for a fix. While Barbara is meant to be seen as less evil for not being a drunk or drug addict she has a similar compulsion towards crime. Crime excites Barbara, it’s all she knows and she’s willing to give her child to her mother in order to continue living the life. I think this was the hardest part for me in terms of connecting and sympathizing with Hayward’s character. I understood that by equating crime with addiction we remove Graham from being responsible for her actions but considering how the crime is handled and the various scenes of being angry that her child doesn’t bond with her (well you did commit a crime and choose that) I just felt it Wise and crew were trying to have their cake and eat it too. To go along with this, scenes where she does bring up her child feel forced. Case in point a scene where she mentions not seeing her child walk. They show that Barbara isn’t quite a saint and they don’t give you enough of the crime to think she’s a killer but the way she acts leading up to this doesn’t help.
By not showing the actual crime, and removing Barbara completely from it, I was left confused on what actually went on. I didn’t understand why the cops were following her until a radio announcement discussed the crime itself. I was paying attention but I still wasn’t sure if Barbara had been at the crime scene or not. The court room scenes do a decent job of cementing Barbara’s guilt, or at least enough to get her to the execution part of the film, and I did enjoy that they included her bribing the undercover cop to give her an alibi. The fact that there’s no big confession scene shows her strength but also wobbles in cementing her guilt as she doesn’t reveal an alibi or discuss the crime itself after conviction.
The strongest part of I Want to Live! has to be the third act as Barbara waits to be executed. Can I just say I constantly thought of The Player while watching these scenes as the climax of the film ends with a movie within the movie featuring a woman going to the gas chamber? As we inch closer to Barbara’s execution I hoped Bruce Willis would show up to smash the glass, save Hayward and end the film with the one-liner “Traffic was a bitch.” Sadly, that doesn’t happen. Screenwriters Nelson Gidding and Don Mankiewicz aren’t content to make the last half of the movie a total downer and keep Barbara the same throughout. We see her primp even before entering jail, making herself look decent when she surrenders, and once she’s in jail she’s still got the sass. My favorite scene has to be when she gives a letter to her lawyer and is told by a jailhouse employee it has to be inspected. Barbara turns to the woman in mock horror and says “Are you trying to teach my lawyer the law?” It’s a moment of sheer comedy amongst the somber surrounding and the look of shock on Hayward’s face makes it even funnier because she’s in on the joke.
Towards the end the film can’t hide the bleak ending its meandering towards and the most accuracy is shown here as Barbara Graham’s execution was stayed several times, twice in the same day! To me it felt like a similar scene in The Tudors (which I highly recommend) where Anne Boleyn prepares herself several times for death and almost goes mad waiting for it. In real life Boleyn waited and I’m wondering how aware of the comparison Wise and crew were. Barbara does almost go mad having her death delayed and at a certain point the audience wants to be relieved of the tension of focusing on their own mortality as well as releasing Graham from her torment. Despite not connecting with her character prior, I did feel for Hayward’s character by this point. The execution scene is meticulously detailed by Wise who even built a replica of the gas chamber at San Quentin for authenticity. Critics have cited the end as proof I Want to Live! is a propaganda film against the death penalty but I didn’t necessarily see it like that. Instead I believe it was showing the last horror of Graham’s life and possibly making her feel the fear that the murdered woman who put her in this felt. I’m hypothesizing obviously but I’m open to other arguments.
I Want to Live! is a gritty crime drama but it suffers from the hype of being a Robert Wise film. I’m sure there are many who would highly chastise me for not praising this film higher but I just didn’t connect with Graham due to the film’s need to present her as hands-off for the crime she committed. Hayward does a great job in the role but after the opening it takes a lot to rally you back to her side.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.