“I Want to Live!” (1958)


Robert Wise’s 1958 film I Want to Live! is a film with a pulse – a pulse that reverberates and throbs throughout the body and reaches the soul. I am both enamored with this film, and yet absolutely determined to never see it again. I imagine that when it was initially released it evoked among its viewers both a renewed faith in the cinematic experience, while a strong loss of faith for most other aspects of humanity.

I Want to Live! is about an immoral woman, Barbara Graham (Susan Hayward), one who is guilty of many non-violent crimes during her life – prostitution and perjury. Even when she tries to turn her life around, the world seems determined to keep pushing her down and out. She has a child whom she loves dearly, but her husband starts ruining them by gambling (I think?).

Graham ends up turning back to those very slimy individuals she had once looked towards for her livelihood. It is at this time that she is arrested, along with them, and charged with the murder of a crippled widow. Things get worse as the men who she was with go out of their way to frame her for the actual act, though she was never there. The rest of the film is about her trial, followed by her death sentence, and continued attempts to appeal and receive a last-minute reprieve.

This is an excellent movie. I thought that I would enjoy it enough, but had no idea just how utterly gripping it would be. Wise’s direction is absolutely superb, and has you hooked from the very first scene. This movie perfectly illustrates why he would soon after this film go on to direct West Side Story – both the quick and energetic direction (including a nice use of the dutch angle in the nightclub to give the film a very jazzy feel)  as well as the constant use of drum-beats tap-tapping in the background. Man, I love it when a certain director has a flair or style that sneaks into his various works regardless of how different they may seem on the surface.

This film is absolutely alive, and the majority of it come from a mix of Wise’s deft skill behind the camera, and Hayward herself. To say that her performance is incredible would be an understatement. That she won the Oscar for it is entirely deserved, and I would argue her performance may be one of the best that I have seen.

There is nothing bad that I can say about this film other than the fact that I never want to see it again, but in that way it did its job. It was excruciating to watch, the tension was palpable, and the ending was absolutely devastating – especially given the fact that the viewer follows Graham throughout the film and we know she’s innocent. We know the men who threw her under the bus can clear her name at any time, yet refuse to do so. It is absolutely disgusting, and this film will not only make you feel pity for Graham, but loathe humanity as a whole

As for how factual it is, well… I came across this . It seems as though several facts were omitted to paint Graham as an innocent flower, which is not too surprising given the nature of the film. Such is often the case when a “true” story get put into the hands of a Hollywood studio, especially when said studio has a specific agenda to fulfill. One reporter, Gene Blake, on that wiki page is even cited for calling I Want to Live! as “a dramatic piece and eloquent piece of propaganda for the abolition of the death penalty.”

While I won’t hold this against this film (even though it starts and ends with a statement urging the “factuality” of the film), it does continue to add to my skepticism with movies that clearly try to push social commentary, in this case on the topic of capital punishment, through a supposedly factual story.

Still, I absolutely adored this film and can’t knock-down my score based on this possible murkiness. Even so, I must inquire as to why a film that changes so many facts just be based on a case as opposed to using real names and acting as if it is entirely based in fact?

Then again when a studio or set of filmmakers have a social message to send out through the film, it does not surprise me to see that such liberties taken in films these days were taken in films back then as well.

Also I will add that the film itself was not overtly preachy about being against the death penalty; it let its story speak for itself so in that way I could watch it without feeling like I was getting the typical Hollywood lecture thrown in my face. Perhaps that is why I am somewhat more willing to overlook its possible bias while writing about it.

So, yeah, putting aside the probable inaccuracies and claims of it being a propaganda piece… on its own the film was undeniably fantastic.

In parting, I tell people who read this to – as with most films churned out by the Hollywood machine that are supposedly “based on a true story” – watch I Want to Live! not as a documentary but as a fictionalized story inspired by something that happened in real life. Either way, I urge you to give this film a viewing.

Rating: 5 out of 5

Go check out this movie, but be mindful that this probably will not end up being a film you want to revisit. Fortunately it is so gripping and intense you’ll never lose interest in your first, and probably only, viewing so a second one should be unneeded.  

Also, as I stated previously, don’t ever take a Hollywood film “based on a true story” at its word. Always be skeptical, especially when it is tackling a controversial subject… and even as the film is so good that it will suck you in from start to finish.

Additional Sources Consulted:

“I Want to Live!” imdb 
“I Want to Live!” wiki  (poster/image)

This entry was posted in 1950's, Film Review, Robert Wise, Susan Hayward, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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