I Want to Live! calls upon the words of two men of repute to make an ethos appeal to the audience. The first quotation is plucked from Albert Camus. I’m not sure what the context actually was but the excerpt reads, “What good are films if they do not make us face the realities of our time.” This is followed up by some very official-looking script signed by Edward S. Montgomery, Pulitzer Prize winner, who confirms this is a factual story based on his own journalism and the personal letters of one Barbara Graham.
So the film asserts its authenticity right off the bat before even showing an image. It’s obviously hewn out of the tradition of the real crime docudramas popular at the time. And yet with any type of project, perhaps especially those that make such a claim, we must still call details into question and take them with a grain of salt.
Director Robert Wise is at it again handily developing an environment that feels lived in, opening with dutch angles to give us a slightly disconcerting introduction to a jazzy hole-in-the-wall joint. The crime maestro is at his best when he is working with locales he can play around with and in this case, the world gives way to character.
Meeting Susan Hayward in this picture is reminiscent of meeting Burt Lancaster’s Swede in The Killers. They’re in an upper room, a bedroom, cloaked in shadow and we know they have a tragic end in sight. Where we find them is almost as important as the characters themselves because it acts as an extension of who they are.
Graham is a different type of flawed figure who we find not in a lover’s room but some random bimbo. Though the word is never said outright, she’s undoubtedly a prostitute with police looking to nab her. This is our initial image of her, and it is telling.
However, the rest of her story is sutured together with whirling whip pans and mementos from photos to newspaper clippings to TV coverage, providing snapshots of a life through intermittent scenes. What we are given is admittedly jarring and not altogether cohesive, though one could easily concede no life is ever straightforward to piece together. So it is with this one.
Before seeing either film, I always mentally confused Caged and I Want to Live! because of the superficial similarity of women criminals behind bars. However, there is a substantial difference in Eleanor Parker who is able to lead her character through a visible transformation. With Hayward its more about reconciling and portraying the varying entities of this befuddling human being: Barbara Graham.
Soon she is styled as “Bloody Babs” by the media, initially lambasting her as a brazen killer with a past full of criminal activity and impropriety. But at least one man, Ed Montgomery (Simon Oakland), begins to change his tune and crusades tirelessly for her innocence. His help, along with the support of a benevolent psychologist (Theodore Bikel), just might turn the tide. Maybe…
Again, the most enjoyable aspect seems to be the mimetic world that has been evoked because to recall the Camus quote, “Here is the reality of our time, and we have no right to be ignorant of it. The day will come when such documents will seem to us to refer to prehistoric times.”
The people (including a young Gavin MacLeod), their clothing, the interiors of rooms, the press, and the mechanisms of the criminal justice system, are all touchstones of some kind. There’s always something we can learn from each even as we must be suspect of how authentic they really are.
Thus, the real star is the direction, featuring some of the most visual flourishes I recall in a Wise picture, further complemented by the jazzy scoring of Johnny Mandel. But its all elemental in creating a backdrop for the story. Black & White serves Wise particularly well.
The final act initially stalls because the story is played from a waiting game angle, trying to ratchet the tension, although the ending is an already foregone conclusion. Everyone is waiting around. I would have thought the ending would go to Susan Hayward. Because until those foreboding final moments, her character hardly feels established even after all we have witnessed. But sometimes one scene can be galvanizing and emblematic of an entire picture.
However, this is not a boisterous exclamation point but an oddly entrancing death scene and this seemingly purposeful decision proves consistent with most of the picture. It foregoes dramatic and visual hyperbole for leaner more understated beats that bear markers of truthfulness. In the end, life doesn’t go out with an explosion but a drop off into somber nothingness.
With such a conclusion we certainly feel sorry for Barbara Graham. However, I’m not sure if we can completely empathize with her. Nevertheless, like any such high stakes story, I Want to Live! calls into question the American justice system, the death penalty, and our understanding of guilt in this country. So was Graham guilty or innocent? I would have to do more outside research to corroborate the facts though the film implies its own position quite overtly.
Regardless, maybe the picture is about larger themes altogether. Issues that go deeper still into the very fabric of how we enact justice, how we perceive it in the media, and even socially, how certain people seem to get raked over the coals.
Why Barbara Graham? Why not someone else? Why like this? It’s an issue that goes beyond superficial terms like good or bad. As a people, I think we are fascinated by individuals who are layered anomalies not to be understood with a cursory glance. Barbara Graham seems like such a person. We cannot write her off with a convenient stereotype.