Although the feature is bracketed between opening and closing statements asserting it is a “factual story,” I Want to Live! comes off as a precursor to Lifetime movies of the week, at least to this modern-day viewer. Susan Hayward, who would win an Academy Award for her over-the-top performance, plays Barbara Graham, a woman sentenced to death by gas chamber.
From the start — well, after a signed comment from Camus about the faults of the death penalty and the first “this is a FACTUAL story” statement — director Robert Wise inserts the audience into Graham’s troubled world. Sounds of a frantic jazz combo accompany disorienting angled shots of a nightclub. A shady old man buys a young woman drinks while a couple of guys light up a joint near the exit. Graham isn’t actually in attendance, but this sequence leads us to assume this kind of raucous place is where we’d likely find her.
Barbara Graham in this 1958 film is a woman who tends towards faulty decision-making: perjuring herself for a couple of seedy pals, perpetrating check fraud, marrying an abusive addict, and eventually getting involved with a couple of guys who rob and murder an old woman. I Want to Live! throws doubts towards her participation in the killing, while there’s plenty of evidence saying otherwise. The script is heavy-handed and clunky, while also giving Graham some choice zingers.
The film’s storytelling method stresses the impact of the media’s fascination with her. Scenes of a newsman discussing Graham’s case on TV intertwine with scenes of her trial. After her sentencing, cameras and journalists interrupt her visit with her young son. She tells a reporter, “Here’s your tip: Bloody Babs shuns press.” I Want to Live! depicts the press as a powerful influence, with one newspaperman so torn by his early treatment of “Bloody Babs” that he starts providing positive coverage to help her legal team.
Graham’s own power is limited, but her wardrobe offers her an illusion of control. In solitary confinement, she wears a negligee despite a warning from her jailers. For her last outfit, she dons heels, even though she may stumble in them. And as a form of protest against the crowd of (male) witnesses to her death, she chooses to wear a sleep mask as a blindfold.
In her character’s last hours, the camera focuses on a religious symbol as her fingers worry over the pendant, or the final splaying of her fingers as the poison overtakes her system. Hayward’s performance may lack the subtlety of anything we’d see on screen nowadays, but her Graham is memorably proud.
I Want to Live! is now available on Blu-Ray from Twilight Time.