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Barbara Graham (Susan Hayward) is a good time party girl who drifts into prostitution and commits perjury in order to help a friend. She consorts with a couple of gamblers and makes enough money conning the gullible into crooked card games that she decides to go "straight" and marries a barman who turns out to be a drug addict. They produce a child, but the husband abandons her and Barbara returns to her former wicked ways. Arrested for the murder of a woman she claims to have no knowledge of, Barbara is convicted on the evidence of her partners in crime and sentenced to die in the gas chamber. Ed Montgomery (Simon Oakland), a once hostile reporter, changes his tune and springs to her defence but it may be too late to have the judges' decision overturned.

Review by Keith Lofthouse:
Oscar-wise, Susan Hayward was a four-time loser until all-time loser Barbara Graham came along. The fiery redhead was a "small scale Joan Crawford" who acted on instincts which weren't always right. She specialised in tramps...tough-minded broads, aggressive, neurotic, and often hysterical, with liquid eyes that filled easily with tears. Few in the audience ever shared her emotions, for they seemed far too artificial for that, but in fairness her style was fashionable for the time; her performance so moved actor Clifton Webb that he (perhaps playfully) billed producer Walter Wanger for his scotch!

As Graham, convicted of murdering the widow Monahan and condemned to death row, this is universally regarded as her best work, even if she was more sympathetic in a pair of melancholy showbiz biopics, With A Song In My Heart (1952) and I'll Cry Tomorrow (1955). She protests her innocence, of course ("I never even knew the dame!") and has Ed Montgomery (Simon Oakland), the very same San Francisco newsman who used the nicknames "Bloody Babs" and "The Tiger Woman" to crucify her in his early press, later campaigning for her retrial. The sometimes stinging script, which was based on newspaper articles by Montgomery and the letters of Graham (and claimed by law enforcement agencies to be too one-sided) does nothing to soften the woman's sordid past. The good time gal had by all (Cop: "I heard there was no such thing as not your type") had a record and a reputation as long as her crime sheet, with convictions for prostitution, perjury and forgery.

Montgomery was a Pulitzer Prize winner who swung to her defences after Carl Palmberg, a psychiatrist who evaluated Graham, concluded that the accused was an amoral woman, a "compulsive liar" quite capable of crime, promiscuity and treachery but incapable of murder. Palmberg, who died before his testimony was ever presented to a jury, is beautifully underplayed by Theodore Bikel...and it's his scenes that best underline the flaws in Hayward's performance but add power to the film as a blistering indictment of capital punishment. Wise, who would later direct two iconic musicals, West Side Story (1961) and The Sound Of Music (1965), "got more emotionally involved in (I Want to Live!) than any other." In his quest for authenticity he witnessed the execution of a young black man convicted of killing two white women. And he met with Father Devers, the priest who was with Graham on that solemn walk to her death. It was his story of those last hours which were translated, with harrowing effect, into the last act in which preparations for her execution are so painfully detailed that in England it was banned and later only shown in sanitised form.

If anything, the voracious press is seen as the real villains of the piece, feeding off scandal, thriving on sensation and perfidiously repentant when it helped to sell papers. "How does it feel to see your baby knowing that you are going to the gas chamber?" one of the vultures asks. Well, they put Barbara Graham through hell before sending her off to that proverbial place and, in their editorials afterwards, agreed that no human being should have to suffer the appeals, petitions and pleas that she endured while on death row. Today, I Want To Live! won't change anybody's mind about legalised murder, but it probably did then. Algerian philosopher, actor, editor, playwright and Nobel Prize winner Albert Camus wrote: "The day will come when such documents (films) will seem to refer to prehistoric times...we shall consider them as unbelievable as we now find it unbelievable that in earlier centuries witches were burned or thieves had their right hands cut off."

Published February 24, 2005

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(US, 1958)

CAST: Susan Hayward, Simon Oakland, Theodore Bikel

DIRECTOR: Robert Wise

SCRIPT: Nelson Gidding, Don Mankiewicz (based on newspaper articles by Ed Montgomery and the letters of Barbara Graham).

RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes

PRESENTATION: 16:9 enhanced


DVD DISTRIBUTOR: MGM Home Entertainment

DVD RELEASE: July 14, 2004

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