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I WANT TO LIVE!

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Susan Hayward, Simon Oakland
Director:  Robert Wise
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Widescreen 1.66:1
Studio:  MGM
Features:  Theatrical Trailer
Length:  121 Minutes
Release Date:  May 7, 2002

“Don't get fresh with us, or we'll…”

“You'll WHAT?  What can any of you threaten me with NOW?”

Film ***1/2

Barbara Graham was no saint.  A free-spirited, tough talking woman in and out of trouble with the law most of her life, she was a gambler, a partier, and a drinker, with a rap record including prostitution, writing bad checks, other small crimes and one felony:  perjury.  But was she a killer?

I Want to Live! tells the story of this woman who, in 1955, went to the gas chamber in California for the murder of an elderly woman.  I don't know much about the actual case, so all the information I have about her is included in this classic movie, which suggests strongly that Ms. Graham may have only been guilty of bad judgment in the character of the people she hung out with.

Two of these people were a pair of men, who were taken into custody with her one night by the police on a number of charges.  One of them is murder.  Barbara claims to know nothing about it, but neither her long history with the police or her brash defiance win her much support.

When those two men point the finger at her for the actual killing, things grow dark quickly for Ms. Graham.  Unable to provide her own alibi for the night of the crime, she makes a foolish mistake in trying to come up with a false one.  In truth, according to her, she was home with her husband and infant child that night, but her husband, a hapless junkie, can provide no help to her.

Journalists become intrigued with the so-called “Bloody Babs” case, including one from the San Francisco Examiner, Edward Montgomery (Oakland), whose real life articles made for part of the basis of this film.  He starts out as just another one hungry for a juicy story, but his involvement in the Graham case would change.  He becomes convinced of her innocence, and sets out to do everything he can to save her.

In the end, though, it will not have been enough.  Ed Montgomery could not keep Barbara Graham from her fate.  Instead, he became the caretaker of her memory.

The biggest argument against the death penalty is that innocent people sometimes suffer it…a fact that is not only unpleasant, but wholly unacceptable.  As I mentioned, I don't know much about the real Barbara Graham, but the Barbara Graham in this film is presented as innocent…as such, even though later death penalty movies like Dead Man Walking have more grit and power, this one also factors in a response of audiences' anger at the proceedings.

When I was a kid, this was one of the films my mother made me sit down and watch, and like most of those times, I resisted at first, but found myself wrapped up in the movie before too long.  I never forgot this one, and was glad to have a chance to see it again some 20 years later.  It remains a potent story, albeit with some melodrama and occasionally cheesy dialogue that dates it a little strongly. It's a film whose missteps are minor, but never falters where it's most important.

Susan Hayward, in her Oscar winning performance as Barbara, is a knockout from start to finish, threading together fibers of defiance, pluck, anger, heartache, love and hate, and creating a complete and complex character with the simple plea that makes up the movie's title.  It's a fearless performance, and a definite defining moment in her career.

I Want to Live! succeeds as both a character drama and as a picture with a statement.  Other films in years since may have covered the same material, and even eclipsed it, but this one remains an American original and a fierce classic.  

Video ***1/2

Though not anamorphic, this is an extremely good quality black and white transfer from MGM, a studio that never seems to fail in delivering the best possible goods when it comes to their library of classic films.  Blacks are incredibly dark and deep…one shot of a city nightscape is gorgeous, as lights from cars and signs peer out from a sea of complete darkness.  Likewise, whites are clean and render clearly, and every shade of grayscale in between.  Images are sharply rendered throughout, with remarkable detail and clarity, and there are only very few instances of noticeable specks or dirt on the print as it plays.  I'm a little uncertain about the 1.66:1 ratio, though, as a couple of scenes featuring newspaper headlines come out a little cropped on both sides.  But apart from that, this is definitely a quality offering.

Audio **

The mono soundtrack has moments that are terrific, and others a little less so.  Dialogue is clean and clear throughout, and the jazz music score is lively and full sounding.  Dynamic range comes about with a few startlingly loud effects and some strong, emotional scenes.  However, during one prison cell sequence that was very quiet, there was a bit of noticeable background noise.  I kept trying to identify it as something in the scene, but it was just a bit of aging artifact on the soundtrack.  Overall, it's still a functional and suitable listen.

Features *

Only a trailer.

Summary:

I Want to Live! was the first Hollywood's many great films to deal with the subject of execution, and thanks to its roots in a true story and an unforgettable performance by Susan Hayward, remains a must-see classic even almost five decades later.