I Want to Live! (1958): The Anomaly of Barbara Graham

220px-I_Want_to_Live!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.

3.5/5 Stars

Canyon Passage (1946): Ole Buttermilk Skies

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Portland, Oregon 1856 could lead us to many places but in these circumstances, it guides us to an enterprising mercantile store owner named Logan Stuart (Dana Andrews). Though he’s the main driving force behind the story, there’s little doubt this is a tale of pioneering far grander than a single individual.

As such, Canyon Passage is the epitome of a hidden gem, lined with talents who generally does not garner enough credit today for their many fine attributes. First of all, is Jacques Tourneur the French director who made a name for himself in a career laced with genre pictures and this one is no different, boasting a spectacular visual vibrancy.

The opening is exemplary, showcasing his skills as a master world-shaper, taking a western town that we only spend minutes in and through torrential rain pouring down, streets of mud, and various interiors, he’s already created a space that feels tangible to our eyes.

He continues this yeoman work throughout the story, which is a credit to its hardy terrain. We have sumptuous outdoor panoramas with rolling plains and expansive skies above. Then, there’s the verdant underbrush of the forests captured, the lush greenery, and even the interiors of cabins and shops have a rustic beauty about them that feels real.

Our trifecta of leads all proved substantial stars at one point or another beginning with Dana Andrews, then Susan Hayward, and Brian Donlevy, yet for whatever reason, it seems their names (much like their director) get lost behind a host of far more visible faces.

Nevertheless, they earn their due and in all other regards, Walter Wanger’s production is knee deep with equally memorable supporting players like many of the greatest westerns of the age. Hoagy Carmichael meanders about doing this and that with his mandolin and donkey, singing an occasional song, such as the instantly unforgettable “Ole Buttermilk Sky,” which captures a bit of the folksy milieu wafting over the picture.

Canyon Passage is also ripe with love triangles beginning with Logan and the future wife of his best friend, Lucy Overmire (Hayward) who he has been tasked with bringing home. They share a mutual affection but Logan respects his buddy George Camrose (Donlevy) too much to steal his girl; they’ve been through far too much together for that.

Instead, he sets his eyes on the pretty young woman (Patricia Roc) who was taken in by a genial frontier family headed by Andy Devine and his wife. They would gladly welcome anyone into their fold and it’s no different with Logan as he looks to make strides with Ms. Caroline.

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However, if this was all Canyon Passage was about, it would lack a sizable conflict. But Logan must simultaneously deal with the local instigator of trouble Honey Bragg (Ward Bond as a burly villain) who has previously had more than a few run-ins with Logan and he’s not looking to make nice.

In fact, the whole town congregates in The Golden Nugget saloon after Bragg challenges his adversary to a showdown to have it out once and for all. The full brutality of such a society sets in with the men crowding around ravenously for a good show of pugilism to get their blood stirred up. A hint of lawlessness has been injected into the air.

But George also has demons of his own, namely, a gambling habit, which he can’t break, owing money all across Oregon to the point his friend bales him out only if he promises to quit. Still, the urge for wealth and constant comparisons with Logan’s continual success, make him continually discontent. He goes straight back to the cisterns that prove to be his undoing.

Like some of the best westerns by the likes of Ford or Hawks, this one feels, at times, like it’s about nothing much in particular and yet the paradox is it’s about so much that’s meaningful, speaking to the humanity at large. There is a local house-raising for a young couple just starting out and they marvel at all the folks who come to help them out. Because, for all the charitable neighbors, this is an investment in their own livelihood.

We see crystal clearly. What is going on, in front of our eyes, is the fleshing out and the building up of an entire community. Then, we receive a showcase for men of principle going against a world that seems so violent, brutal, and utterly untamed. Instead of cowering in fear or remaining apathetic, they look to confront it in some way.

However, beyond this, we have another broad conflict that’s age-old. The chafing between those who began with the land — The Native American tribes — and then the white man expanding westward with a belief they deserve a chance at a new life. In the eyes of those who started there, these newcomers are desecrating their home. In the eyes, of the pioneers, they are making it into more of a home.

When human beings wind up in close proximity, with varying viewpoints, beliefs, and practices, there’s bound to be repercussions and there are. Watching Canyon Passage you realize these very things were affecting real people, men and woman, families and the children within them. It feels like a truly eye-opening scenario.

Bloodshed ensues and against such beautiful exteriors, it only makes the scarring of the land and the bodies all the more inescapable. There’s something inside of us saying this is not the way it was meant to be.

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What makes Canyon Passage quite powerful, frankly, is there’s no single point of contention or an individual goal in mind. It’s this all-encompassing drama with grand themes — grandiose in both scope and scenery — that concern a whole host of people trying to make lives in the western territories. You can begin to understand most everyone’s point of view. Amid the destruction and unrest, it’s easy to recognize the problems at hand. Surely, the West was meant to be more than this. Fights and warring, razing and killing.

But the frontier has always been an arena for hardship. Death by any number of ways. It’s the resiliency people lived with that meant something. In Canyon Passage, there are the same kind of folks who don’t go skulking around in their troubles but instead rise up to make the best of the next day to come. One might wager a bet it’s one of the bygone markers of the American spirit. Hopefully, we haven’t lost it all yet. We could probably still use some of that just as we could still use ambition and love, friendship, and fellowship with an underlying empathy for our fellow man.

Only when “The End” flashed upon the screen did I realize, in my former days of channel surfing in vacation hotel rooms, I once caught the tail-end of Canyon Passage. There again was an indelible image I distinctly remember, Hoagy Carmichael ambling along on his donkey, through the forest, knocking back a tune. It made me distinctly mirthful like an old friend just recently discovered again. If this film isn’t considered a classic by now then it should definitely be in the running.

4/5 Stars

House of Strangers (1949)

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Joseph L. Mankiewicz will always hold the prestige of a writer over a director and yet working off a script by Phillip Yordan, he guides the picture with an assured hand. House of Strangers manages to be intermittently stylish and deeply evocative highlighted by fiery performances. Ironically, it begins like a good many of his most well-known works with an extensive flashback.

It stems from a story that has deeply familiar roots in the American experience full of the old vs. new world dichotomy, immigrant lives, love, and hate. The expansive Italian family rendered so memorably in The Godfather films comes to mind most plainly and there’s little doubt House of Strangers sows some of the same seeds cropping up again over 20 years later in Coppola’s classic.

Thematically, it’s about a culture that is extremely family-oriented but also hierarchical. It’s right there in the title. With how he runs his household, Gino Manetti (Edward G. Robinson) has tended a “house of strangers” by picking favorites and alienating his other sons. They are tired of constantly being ridiculed and doing his bidding, while their ambitious brother Max (Richard Conte) gets their father’s full attention, going so far as to herald his upcoming marriage to his sweetheart (Debra Paget). The other Manettis never get such fanfare.

As might be expected within this context, the story relies on powerhouse performances and Robinson is astoundingly effectual as the patriarch. It never really feels as if he’s playing at something (the same cannot be said of Hope Emerson unfortunately) but he takes on the persona of someone who does only what they see fit to do. His mode of thinking and acting is very straightforward. There’s nothing diplomatic about his dealings and that garners him many friends but also plenty of ill feelings.

Joe (Luther Adler), the oldest Minneti brother, is discontent with the way his father takes him for granted, keeping him as a bank teller with little responsibility in the family business. He’s worried about his image with his wife and the neighborhood. Their father’s favoritism only makes it worse.

Then, there’s Pietro (George Valentine) the brawny brother who doesn’t have the greatest brains and so his father keeps him on as a security guard. The boy’s also been moonlighting in the boxing ring but he receives his father’s disdain for having a soft belly. So he’s got his own burning grudge, that and the fact Gino is always making him change the records at family dinners. Tony (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.) is the pushover and it’s easy for dad to keep him in his place.

In a sequence that could almost be plucked out of It’s a Wonderful Life, the bank is closed down in the throes of The Depression and there are riots in the streets broken up by the police force. But in the aftermath, Gino is put on trial for his loose business practices that more than likely bent numerous federal regulations. He never did care much for them.

If his sons were behind him it would be easy enough to beat the rap but with only Max in his corner, it becomes an increasingly strenuous battle. In the end, the beloved son shields his father but ends up being disbarred and served a prison sentence for jury tampering.

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Waiting for him on the outside is the former client that he’s come to love, Irene Bennett (Susan Hayward), and out of love she confronts the old man and berates him for what he has unwittingly done to his sons, worst of all Max. Hayward’s performance is poised, at first sultry and then full of fight as she battles for what’s hers. She’s one strong woman in what seems a sea of benevolent ones.

The inevitable finally happens and Gino dies but he has left behind residual bitterness that still seethes between the siblings. The other three remain jealous of Max’s hallowed place at their father’s right hand and he sees their takeover of their father’s bank as seditious.

Conte seems often criminally underappreciated and best-remembered as a casualty of Michael Corleone. But do a survey of his career and you realize how crucial he was to the film noir movement serving up a versatility that found him in sympathetic roles as well as villainous turns running the gamut from Call Northside 777 (1947), Thieves Highway (1949), and Whirlpool (1949) to Cry of The City (1948) and The Big Combo (1955).

On a side note, this picture would once again briefly pair Conte with Debra Paget romantically though, oddly, she was only about 16 at the time. The studio’s executives must have seen something…

However, with House of Strangers Conte straddles the line between most of his other roles. Ruthless when he needs to be, capable of a grudge even, and still generally affectionate of the ones he loves. It’s arguably his most far-ranging and nuanced performance of the whole lot and he does a sterling job.

Because to drag The Godfather comparison out further, if Robinson is Vito, in some regards, the most prominent figure in the film, then Conte’s Max is Michael, the son who soon comes into his own and becomes the new center. He owns the picture just as Pacino ultimately became emblematic of The Godfather as a dynasty.

The repercussions of brother pitted against brother are evident. The forces of their father are still working on them almost unconsciously now. It’s been built into how they perceive family. But in a single shining moment, Max wrenches his clan out of this self-destructive horror that their dear old departed dad seemingly cultivated. Instead, he lays the foundation for something more substantive even if the healing comes in incremental baby steps.

Old habits die hard but that doesn’t mean they can’t be eradicated…Maybe. More importantly, he hears the impatient honk of that same horn out on the adjoining street. He’s still got his girl. The film’s happy ending deserves a noirish asterisk. Some amount of loss must come with any gain.

3.5/5 Stars

They Won’t Believe Me (1947)

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We open in a courtroom and with a flashback but what’s stunning is that the man relating the information is on the witness stand and also the defendant in a murder trial. So much hangs in the balance of the perspective he’s about to disclose and that’s how the picture nabs us. Often there’s no import to the use of voiceover. It’s only a stylistic choice or a bit of lazy storytelling utilized without a great deal of forethought. This testimony actually matters.

The man in question is one Larry Ballentine (Robert Young). His Saturday afternoons most recently have been spent in the company of his “Skipper” Janice Bell (Jane Greer) and their relationship is full of good humor. You can see it on their faces that they enjoy each other’s company tremendously. But he has a wife of 5 years. It’s the old story. He’s only realizing now when another woman comes into the picture that he never really loved Helen (Rita Johnson), marrying her instead for her healthy endowment. She’s quite rich.

We can discern already a tale of adultery is in the works as Larry plans to break the news to his wife and leave with Janice for Montreal though the other woman wants no part of being a homewrecker. Still, Helen loves him dearly and tries to do everything to salvage their marriage so Larry relents and vows to stay with her. He ditches Janice without even a word of goodbye.

But he’s a man with a pathological problem and although his wife has set him up with a cushy job, he’s already up to his philandering ways again. One day his alluring secretary (Susan Hayward) saves his neck with the boss and starts to flirt with him. It begins again. Secluded cafes. Hidden spots — a game of “hide and seek with fate” as Larry so aptly puts it. He’s hardly phased by Virna’s admission to being a gold digger and while Helen vows never to divorce him, he plans to clean out their joint checking account and run off with Virna.

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Up to this point, They Won’t Believe Me is an engaging albeit straightforward tale of infidelity but then it goes wildly out of control as Larry’s life careens off the tracks. He leaves his wife a note with no forwarding address as he goes off with his latest gal toward fateful consequences. Later, he winds up meeting an understandably aloof Janice again in Jamaica of all places. He is clearing his head. It’s unclear how she got there. But it’s yet another prime example, to evoke Detour (1945), of how so often fate can put the finger on you. There’s no chance of getting away from it.

There’s also the sense this is a picture and a version of film noir that is akin to the common everyday circumstances of James M. Cain’s crime novels. But this is spun in such a way where we still have empathy for our perpetrator. The same can hardly be said of Double Indemnity (1944) or The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).

However, the moral ambiguity is still very much apparent to the final moment when an explosive action twists up the narrative threads in such a way that’s meant to evoke some form of cognitive dissonance. How are we suppose to respond to it all?

Because the film’s title is almost beside the point. It’s one of those lurid melodramatic billboard toppers meant to make you look up and take notice. But as per usual, it doesn’t actually get to the core themes of the film nor does it really matter. Whether or not he is believed is an arbitrary issue. Larry might as well have been a killer. This is the quintessential role (aside from The Mortal Storm) if you are looking for something to subvert your view of Robert Young as the world’s perfect father. Here he’s the perfect cad.

They Won’t Believe Me also deserves note for its producer Joan Harrison who began as Alfred Hitchcock’s secretary and eventual co-screenwriter before she became one of the pioneering female producers in Hollywood and a great one at that.

This picture can be added to an illustrious list of noirs including The Phantom Lady (1943) and Ride The Pink Horse (1947). Perhaps her influence is most obviously felt in the fact that our female characters have a rather refreshing resonance. Though they might be unfairly used and manipulated there’s a certain traction to the roles that give them an extra dimension often lacking in other works. Each performance adds something of value to the picture.

3.5/5 Stars

Note: The reissued version of They Won’t Believe Me put out in 1957 was cut down to 80 minutes.