I Want to Live!, Robert Wise’s riveting docudrama about the life of convicted murderer Barbara Graham, only gets more impressive with age.
The Production: 4.5/5
I Want to Live!, Robert Wise’s riveting docudrama about the life of convicted murderer Barbara Graham, only gets more impressive with age. Featuring a deservedly decorated central performance and a host of the best character actors Hollywood had to offer at the time of its production, I Want to Live! pulls no punches in telling the story of how a woman of questionable moral standing wound up on the road to her own destruction.
Barbara Wood (Susan Hayward) is no stranger to the police, interrogations, prosecution, or incarceration, in her earlier years arrested for everything from prostitution and perjury to forgery, but she’s a woman who’s always ready to roll the dice in the hopes of a brighter tomorrow. A marriage to Henry Graham (Wesley Lau) seems like it might be Barbara’s salvation, and the birth of a child convinces her the child deserves all the breaks he can get, but her husband turns to drugs, and every dollar Barbara earns legitimately goes to supporting his habit. Desperate for money, she returns to Emmett Perkins (Philip Coolidge), a man getting ready to pull a job with cohorts Jack Santo (Lou Krugman) and Bruce King (James Philbrook). Barbara thinks it’s simple larceny, but an elderly woman is killed in the process with the three hoods implicating Barbara in the murder. With no alibi that she was at home with her toddler and drugged-out husband, Barbara is convicted along the rest of them and sentenced to the gas chamber. Reporter Ed Montgomery (Simon Oakland) who had followed Barbara’s checkered career for a long time and was initially against her at her trial now begins printing stories protesting her innocence, but appeals and writs seem to fall of deaf legal ears. It looks as though Barbara will indeed make that date with the gas chamber.
The script by Nelson Gidding and Don M. Mankiewicz may take some liberties with the story and condense events to cut down on the film’s running time (a generous but stuffed two hours), but it doesn’t shortchange the audience in the ways that count: painting a portrait of Barbara Graham that’s ugly and just on this side of sordid and following her through sequences of dishonesty, bad decisions (quite a few of those), backstabbing (not only by cohorts but by police plants and lawyers, too), and, eventually, right up to the gas chamber. While she may not be a good girl, she has redeeming qualities that aren’t glossed over: she truly seems to love her son, and she values a wonderful, close friend Peg (Virginia Vincent) who once ran with Barbara and her crowd but got out when things started to turn more dangerous and who now enjoys a settled life with a husband and two children. We’re not made privy to why various appeals for new trials and writs to stay the execution or convert her sentence to life in prison aren’t allowed (probably the most frustrating aspect of the production), but director Robert Wise, who early on filmed scenes with a tilted camera suggesting the drug fueled smoke-filled jazz club where we first are pulled into a shadowy world of schemers and low-lifes, pulls out all the stops for the film’s last half hour, Barbara’s endless hours in the cell adjoining the gas chamber waiting for any word of hope, jumping every time the phone rings, squirming in agony at the monstrously dehumanizing rules for the treatment of prisoners awaiting death. Unquestionably the film is one of the great anti-capital punishment movies, the mortifyingly intense gas chamber sequence being the final, decisive point at the end on one great, damning exclamatory sentence showing the elaborate efforts the district attorney, the newspapers, and police made to railroad Barbara into a death sentence.
Susan Hayward won the New York Film Critics, Golden Globe, and Academy Award (at long last after four previous nominations) for her harrowing performance in the movie. Tough, brazen, and a risk-taker, her Barbara is no saint, but she is tinged with specks of humanity and decency, and small things (like lying to a prison matron about her happy marriage to junkie Henry) add a touch of poignancy to her leathery exterior. The line-up of first-rate character actors speaks volumes about the talent on hand, and each one gives a masterful performance: Simon Oakland as Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Ed Montgomery, Theodore Bikel as her gentle psychologist who early-on believes her pleas of innocence despite her earlier misconduct, John Marley as the kindly priest who is with Barbara to the end, Virginia Vincent as loving best friend Peg, Raymond Bailey as the warden at San Quentin, Stafford Repp and Gavin McLeod as tough police detectives who grill Barbara, Peter Breck as a police plant who trips Barbara up in her last ditch scheme to save herself, Alice Backes as a kind San Quentin nurse and Gertrude Flynn as the stern San Quentin matron, and Wesley Lau as the drug addicted Henry Graham.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio has been faithfully rendered in a 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. This is an immense step-up from the MGM non-anamorphic DVD available for so many years. The image is clean and free from the dust, dirt, and scratches from the earlier transfer while also correcting the aspect ratio and delivering a much more solid transfer in terms of crisp detail and expert grayscale rendering. Contrast has been consistently applied, and only some minor instances where grain in lower light levels seems a bit problematic is the only minor blemish on the transfer. The movie has been divided into 24 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix takes away almost all of the inherent hiss from the earlier transfer leaving us with a mostly clear and clean soundtrack. Dialogue has been expertly recorded and has been combined with Johnny Mandel’s jazz-infused score and compelling atmospheric effects (the sound of those cyanide eggs dropped into acid will haunt your dreams for days) for a most impressive aural presentation.
Special Features: 3/5
Isolated Score and Effects Track: presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. The track also contains about twenty minutes of commentary between music cues by Robert Wise associate and music engineer extraordinaire Mike Matessino.
Theatrical Trailer (2:20, HD)
MGM 90th Anniversary Trailer (2:06, HD)
Six-Page Booklet: contains a few black and white stills, original poster art on the back cover, and film historian Julie Kirgo’s thoughtful analysis of the movie.
A great drama worthy of even more acclaim than it received in its day, I Want to Live! continues to offer a disturbing argument against capital punishment with the cinematic style and substance that director Robert Wise became known for. There are only 3,000 copies of this Blu-ray available. Those interested in purchasing it should go to either www.twilighttimemovies.com or www.screenarchives.com to see if product is still in stock. Information about the movie can also be found via Facebook at www.facebook.com/twilighttimemovies.