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USA 1958
Directed by
Robert Wise
90 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

I Want to Live!

Although it looks like standard 1950 B-grade fare I Want To Live! was nominated for six Academy Awards with the Oscar for Best Actress going to Susan Hayward for her portrayal of Barbara Graham, a real-life young Californian who drifted from being a good-time girl to prostitution, petty crime and, eventually, as the result of a robbery gone wrong, a murder rap of which she claimed to be innocent (but then, doesn't everyone?).

Robert Wise’s film charts Graham's journey from partying hard to Death Row (that crazy jazz music’ll do it every time!), the final half hour or so being a gruesomel y documentary-like account of the workings of the gas chamber interwoven with the harrowing 11th hour attempts to get her a stay of execution.

As the opening and closing titles tell us, I Want To Live! is based on the writings of Ed Montgomery (Simon Oakland) an investigative journalist who was initially convinced of Graham’s guilt but gradually becomes her champion. Whilst certainly her conviction was based on a flagrant instance of entrapment and would not survive an appeal today, on the other hand there is no really satisfactory explanation of why her accomplices, two of whom were also executed, insisted that she was the killer. 

Of course, in the inherently aestheticising tendency of cinema, having Hayward playing Graham (who was in actuality 10 years younger than the actress) already predisposes us to be sympathetic to her pleas of innocence. And even if the actress does an effective job of portraying Graham as a tough nut this was the 1950s and by today’s standards the portrayal is relatively glamorised (compare Charlize Theron’s Aileen Wuornos in Monster (2003) with Wise going overboard with Christian piety at the film’s end.

Whether Graham was innocent or guilty I Want to Live! is above all an impassioned and persuasive cri de coeur against capital punishment.




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