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This is the story of Barbara Graham, party girl and petty criminal, who
was charged, along with two men, in the March, 1953, real life slaying
of Mabel Monohan, a wealthy and elderly widow who lived in Burbank,
California. Technically, "I Want To Live" is a high quality production.
It has excellent B&W photography, superb editing, a jazzy score; and,
it features Susan Hayward's Oscar winning performance as Barbara
Graham, a young woman portrayed as independent-minded, tough as nails,
feisty, defiant, vulnerable, and a good mother.
Both at the beginning and at the end of this Robert Wise directed film the viewer is informed that the story is "factual". But the screenplay never delves into the actual "facts" of the murder. We don't learn anything about the victim, her relationships, the crime scene, or any of a thousand important details that must surely have surrounded this high profile case. Instead, the film focuses entirely on Graham, and goes out of its way to portray her as innocent, in the Monohan murder.
Even a cursory review of available literature suggests that the film, while "factual" in some respects, is fictional in others. For example, in reality, the police did not capture Graham and her two male friends in a warehouse at night, as the film portrays; they captured the three in a seedy apartment in daytime. The film omits her addiction to heroin. In more than one way, the film presents Graham sympathetically, and as a victim of the criminal justice system. There's an interesting story about the film's producer, and his motivations for making this film the way he did.
Nevertheless, I am not convinced, beyond a reasonable doubt, that she was guilty, mainly because I do not have access to the detailed "facts" of the Monohan case. After all these years, the truth regarding the murder has become cloudy, obscure.
It is the thick fog surrounding the real life case that makes the film's final thirty minutes so gut-wrenching, as we await Barbara Graham's fate. Suspense is heightened by a deadline-induced outcome that will either be black or white, all or nothing, but certainly not gray. In setting out to portray a woman wrongly accused of murder, the filmmakers have thus created an ending that is amazingly effective.
"I Want To Live" is a well made Hollywood production with riveting suspense. But keep in mind the film presents only the case for the defense, which may or may not be consistent with the truth.
Susan Hayward's powerful performance as Barbara Graham has been much written about, and it is the single best part of this film. But there are so many other perfectly pitched performances surrounding her as well, mostly by actors relatively unknown even to film buffs, or early turns by actors whose faces, if not names, did find a national audience--Virginia Vincent as Peg (she played the mother in The Hills Have Eyes), Gas chamber guard Dabbs Greer (the Rev. on Little House on the Prairie and Picket Fences), and especially Raymond Bailey who plays the San Quentin warden. His understated forthrightness and humaneness are a far cry from his later manic turn as Mr Drysdale on The Beverly Hillbillies (with the addition of a toupee). Robert Wise handles the execution preparations with a clinicism that turns the stomach more than any posturing would do, bringing the horror of impending death home. And following the clock's second with a moving camera closeup, instead of just cutting to the clock on the wall, done so many times, is craftsmanship of the highest order.
Let's begin with the minus side.This is necessarily a one-side
movie,because Barbara Graham is deemed innocent whereas nobody knows
exactly the truth.And the movie does not help much for that matter:we
know little of Graham's life before her arrest:a woman of easy
virtue,but this is not enough to convince;her background,her
childhood,everything is overshadowed.
However,this is a tour de force of a movie.Robert Wise,one of the masters of film noir,was the man who could pull off this harsh story,because he had always been a restrained director,and mainly,mainly,because,he was one of these artists who could make the best of black and white;I will only mention one scene:the arrest:Barbara is holding a soft toy,and she faces a blinding searchlight,while a jazz music is heard.Eerie indeed.
Susan Hayward,at her peak,is fabulous.I can't think of another actor or actress who gave such a heart-wrenching,such a harrowing performance as far as the death row is concerned(Sean Penn is her closer contender,in his extraordinary "dead man walking" part).
The "preparations" of the gas chamber are detailed with an unbearable accuracy:nothing is spared the audience.Wise was not the first to depict
the capital execution:André Cayatte did it before in "nous sommes tous des assassins"(1952)but he used to much characters and the movie seems today obsolete,and not only because the death penalty was abolished in France in 1981.Then José Giovanni in "deux hommes dans la ville"(1972),and the best French attempt "le pull-over rouge" (Michel Drach,1979) the latter based on a true story like Graham's.This movie remains commendable,the French TV never showed it,that speaks volumes. Two American movies tackled the topic in the nineties:"the last dance"(Sharon Stone being the only asset) and the already mentioned (and much better ) "dead man's walking".
Nothing comes close to Wise's and Heyward 's collaboration.Forget your bias and watch these two artists show us what the seventh art can achieve.
Filmed in stark black and white as I think all films of this nature should be, one sees the stark realism unfold of a woman's already messed up and sad life become a pitiful situation of which there isn't a return. One of America's real true tragedies where a woman is used as a pawn by the judicial system so that the State of California can really punish those that should have been and were punished. If it weren't for Barbara Graham's final outcome, the bad guys would still be alive today. If you are like me and love criminology and hate injustice, you must see this picture. Susan Hayward gave the performance of a lifetime and deservedly won the Oscar for best actress. The piece has this blues/jazzy type of music in the background which I think makes the film more realistic because it was the type of music that Barbara Graham loved. Do yourself a favor and see this one.
Barbara Graham was a known prostitute with criminal associates. In the
early 1950s, Graham and two men were accused of and arrested for the
brutal murder of elderly Mable Monahan during the course of a robbery.
Convicted and sentenced to death in California's gas chamber, Graham
protested her innocence to the end--and many considered that she was
less a criminal than a victim of circumstance and that she had been
railroaded to conviction and execution. The celebrated 1958 film I WANT
TO LIVE follows this point of view, presenting Graham as a thoroughly
tough gal who in spite of her background was essentially more sinned
against than sinner, and the result is an extremely intense, gripping
film that shakes its viewers to the core.
The film has a stark, realistic look, an excellent script, a pounding jazz score, and a strong supporting cast--but it is Susan Hayward's legendary performance that makes the film work. She gives us a Graham who is half gun moll, half good time girl, and tough as nails all the way through--but who is nonetheless likable, perhaps even admirable in her flat rebellion against a sickeningly hypocritical and repulsively white-bread society. Although Hayward seems slightly artificial in the film's opening scenes, she quickly rises to the challenge of the role and gives an explosive performance as notable for its emotional hysteria as for its touching humanity.
As the story moves toward its climax, the detail with which director Wise shows preparations for execution in the gas chamber and the intensity of Hayward's performance add up to one of the most powerful sequences in film history. Ironically, Hayward privately stated that her own research led her to believe that Graham was guilty as sin--and today most people who have studied the case tend to believe that Graham was guilty indeed. But whether the real-life Barbara Graham was innocent or guilty, this is a film that delivers one memorable, jolting, and very, very disturbing ride. Strongly recommended, but not for the faint of heart.
Gary F. Taylor, aka GFT, Amazon Reviewer
I Want to Live was a film from it's inception was guaranteed to create
controversy. There are all kinds of opinions about the death penalty
and it's application all over the world. Barbara Graham's story, so
fresh in the minds of the movie going public in 1958, was going to be a
source of controversy.
Did she actually kill the widow Monahan? The film cleverly sidesteps that issue in the screenplay. What exactly was Graham's role in the botched robbery? All the people who could actually tell us are dead. Should a woman be subject to capital punishment. Ethel Rosenberg went to the electric chair on less evidence than Graham and for a crime that was not a homicide.
But all these questions aside, there is one absolute in this film. Susan Hayward gave a performance that must have been inspired by the angels. From the first half of the film dealing with her early life, the homicide she was charged with until the second half covering her sentence and her attempts to avoid the gas chamber, Hayward will keep you glued to your seat.
I can't imagine another actress in this part. She of course was the Best Actress for 1958, but in my lifetime only Hillary Swank in her role in Boys Don't Cry was the Oscar ever conceded before the envelope was opened at the ceremony. EVERYONE knew that both Hayward and Swank were winners going in, that's how good both of them were.
Susan Hayward was simply the best at her job. She had a number of great parts in Fifties and a few clinkers at the height of her career. But to get the Oscar for the part that was her signature role, made the ceremonies in 1959 a great occasion.
She's got a good cast of supporting players in I Want to Live, Simon Oakland, Theodore Bikel, Wesley Lau, Phillip Coolidge. But it is Hayward's film totally.
A part like Barbara Graham given to an actress like Susan Hayward only comes along once or twice in a lifetime. Don't miss this one, however you feel about capital punishment.
Many people recognize Susan Hayward as a great actress but if you ask
in what movie they thought she was remarkable, they'll usually tell you
they can't remember any particular classic in which she played. They'll
tell you that they think she is a great actress for all the movies and
in her career. Let's face it. She never played in a classic. There
one movie on AFI's top 100 list that stares her. But if you ask anybody
what her best performance was, anybody will answer that it was her role as
Barbara Graham in "I want to live". Sure the movie's not a classic. But
she totally deserved the best actress Oscar she won for her role in
Barbara Graham (Hayward) is a tough, wisecracking prostitute. A real party-girl. Even when she gets arrested for murder, she keeps on joking around and p***ing-off the cops. But when she realizes that this thing is going to court and that if she's convicted, she could be executed in the gas-chamber, she doesn't see things the same way anymore. And when she thinks she has found a man that is willing to testify that she was with him on the night of the murder, he gets her to tell him that she was present at the scene of the crime. She tells him all this. But when he is summoned in court, he is the prosecution's witness and he appears to be a cop who has trapped her into telling all the evidence the prosecution needs to convict her.
Robert Wise's directing is pretty good but the two things that make this one worth watching are the music and Hayward's performance. John Mandel's choice of the blues for the music is excellent and allows us to hang on with Barbara until her very last second alive. Be forewarned: This one is 100% of a tear-jerker and requires nerves of steel to make it through the whole thing without crying. If you like Hayward, see it at all costs. However, Robert Wise has directed some better ones like "West side story" for example. But still, it's pretty good.
Always enjoyed most of the films that Susan Hayward appeared in and her acting was outstanding and she was a very beautiful lady of the Silver Screen. In this True to Live Story, Susan plays, Barbara Graham,(Valley of the Dolls",'67, who loves life, having a good time and also a con-artist who does petty things. However, Barbara gets involved with some so called friends who sort of sell her down the river and her life becomes very complicated and at times very tragic. Susan Hayward holds the picture together with outstanding acting and portrays the horrible facts of life Barbara Graham had to encounter in all kinds of disappointing situations. Great film, don't miss it.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"I Want To Live" is a powerful albeit fictional account of the Barbara
Graham case. Graham was accused of murdering a Mrs. Monahan along with
two male colleagues during a robbery. In the story, they had her take
the rap for the murder, figuring a woman would never be given the death
penalty. They figured wrong. Not only did she get it, but we see her
get it in agonizing detail at the end of the film.
This was tough stuff for 1958. Susan Hayward does a great job, although I have to admit that my favorite performance of hers remains "I'll Cry Tomorrow." Nevertheless, she sinks her teeth into this role. There are different opinions among those posting reviews here about her acting. Granted, Hayward was of her time, and this is not the kind of performance one would see today. She was an overt actress where, for instance, Olivia de Havilland was more subtle. Nevertheless, she's excellent. She's playing Barbara Graham, a prostitute, drinker, and good time girl, and the performance fits that woman's tough character. Could Hayward overdo the histrionics? Sure, but she generally didn't with a good director, and she had one here in Robert Wise.
Barbara Graham in real life was on her fourth marriage and apparently involved sexually with her two compatriots - she was in the nude when she was arrested with them at their hotel. She also was a heroin addict. Though the film allows you to believe that she was present during the killing but didn't actually do it, the real Barbra Graham supposedly did confess to the warden of the prison.
No matter how you feel about the death penalty, or Barbara Graham's guilt or innocence, this film will have a powerful effect on you. You won't forget it.
This movie is in black & white, has a jazzy score and a great central performance by Susan Hayward. She has many great lines of dialogue, most of which are spit out, and she plays the part for all its worth. The last half hour is completely engrossing. See it and then you'll remember it forever.
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