I Want to Live!

Released Nov. 18, 1958: I WANT TO LIVE!, starring Susan Hayward, Simon Oakland, and Virginia Vincent. Directed by Robert Wise (The Set-Up, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Odds Against Tomorrow). This film tells the true story of Barbara Graham (Susan Hayward), a hustler who inhabits the lower underbelly of society, conning marks, escorting men, writing bad checks, driving getaway cars, skipping parole, and generally doing whatever it takes to make a fast buck. She’s tough, she’s good at what she does, and she enjoys the lifestyle.IWantToLiveBut when Hayward and two accomplices get hauled in by the police, she suddenly finds herself charged with a murder she didn’t commit. At least that’s what we’re led to believe. The film never actually depicts the murder in question, leaving us in the dark about details, much like Hayward’s character in the film. Eventually, Hayward is convicted of the murder, all the while proclaiming her innocence, and is sentenced to death. Hayward won the Best Actress Oscar for her role in this film, and indeed, she gives it her all. There are moments when her passion borders on overwrought melodrama, but the sum total of her performance is heart-felt, spirited, and definitely memorable. Hayward alone is responsible for holding up one half of this movie, while director Robert Wise is responsible for the other. There are times when Wise’s fast-paced direction barely gives us a chance to catch our breath. The first 15 minutes of the film are like a whirlwind tour of the seedier side of life, as Wise has us hopping from jazz clubs, to sketchy poker games, to wild parties, to back room payoffs in a series of bite-sized scenes. When Hayward’s fate becomes more grim, Wise unrelentingly draws us into her world of confinement where we directly experience her frustrations, hopes for salvation, and crushing disappointments. The meticulous sequences of the gas chamber being prepared for her execution are brilliant and disquieting. No detail is spared as we’re given a close up view of a two-man crew working in silence, uncovering the chamber, preparing the cyanide pellets, connecting monitoring equipment, and testing the apparatus. It’s a cold and bleak series of images. The jazzy soundtrack by Johnny Mandel is another standout element of the film, complimenting the mood perfectly. Mandel would eventually go on to write the theme to M*A*S*H (1972). Some have cast doubts on the movie’s claim that it presents a factual story. Critics say Barbara Graham is portrayed much more sympathetically in the film than she actually was in real life. This may or may not be true, but either way, it doesn’t detract from the film’s powerful story or Hayward’s forceful performance. We give I Want to Live! 4 out 5 fedoras.

4 Fedoras

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