I WANT TO LIVE! finally gave Brooklyn-baked tough cookie Susan Hayward her Oscar for Best Actress, after four previous nominations. Each role in that quartet had her wracking the emotional scale as women in trouble from booze, men or injury, but this 1958 stops-pulled noir drama saw the feisty redhead walking the last mile for murder. Depending on your affinity for diva-dame Hayward’s style of scenery-devouring, it’s either a tour de force or trial by fire, a brash, bruising mix of the effective and the embarrassing. It’s also another of Hollywood’s well-intended but factually facile guilt-inducers on that bona fide party-souring subject of Capital Punishment.*
Lifelong hard-luck case Barbara Graham (Hayward) was a small-time scammer, petty ripoff, proven perjurer and low-class prostitute. Written by Nelson Gidding and Don Mankiewicz, off articles from reporter Edward S. Montgomery and letters written by Graham, it paints anything but a pretty picture. After detailing various sundry and tawdry aspects of her scumbag-populated lifestyle, it goes on the assumption that the conviction for her part in a sickening murder was an outright legal sham and that her subsequent 1955 execution, after a much-publicized battle, was more ‘proof’ of the—again presumed—barbarity of the Death Penalty. **
“ It’s Mrs. Graham’s tough luck to be young, attractive, belligerent, immoral… and guilty as hell.”
Since Graham gets to cavort in all sorts of outrageous, licentious manner (it was Adult Material for the time), with one scene after another to play for scandal, sex, screaming or sympathy, it had SUSAN HAYWARD! written all over it. At any rate, give her kudos for nerve when it comes to deglamorizing. “Get this straight, Miss Bedpan, nobody’s going to go pawing all over me!”
Robert Wise directs for maximum impact; he gets some slick camera-work from Lionel Lindon, and the script has good lines to spare, but the editing is erratic, Johnny Mandel’s much-ballyhooed jazz soundtrack makes an earache grind for those not fond of dissonant noise, and a jumpy narrative plays convenient havoc with the pesky truth in order to make its social statement (Graham was, oops!… guilty: bummer). If the screenplay was a case, it would be thrown out for lack of evidence.
“I’ve seen angel-pusses that would shoot their own grandmother in the back and take bets on which way they’d fall.”
Besides the leading lady’s career-rewarded triumph, it drew Academy nominations for Direction, Script, Cinematography, Sound and Film Editing. Brought to the docket for less than $1,384,000, the verdict was $5,642,000, ranking 17th for the year.
Many familiar faces flash by in the sordid episodes that mark Babs victim-laden journey to San Quentin’s unforgiving gas chamber. On hand are Simon Oakland, Virginia Vincent, Theodore Bikel, Wesley Lau, Philip Coolidge, Lou Krugman, James Philbrook, Joe De Santis, Bartlett Robinson, Peter Breck, Raymond Bailey, Alice Backes, Gertrude Flynn, Russell Thorson, Dabbs Greer, Gavin MacLeod, John Marley, Stafford Repp, Shelly Manne, Gerry Mulligan, Lew Gallo, Brett Halsey, Jack Weston, Bill Stout and Len Lesser. 120 minutes.
* Hayward’s earlier dibs were for 1947’s Smash-Up:The Story of A Woman, 1949’s My Foolish Heart, 1952’s With A Song In My Heart and what many regard as her best (yours truly votes yes) in 1955 for I’ll Cry Tomorrow (losing to another firebrand, Anna Magnani in The Rose Tattoo). Her gusty over-emoting in I Want To Live! may have elicited applause in 1958, but today it just seems too much: I’d have given that year’s mantel-art to another, somewhat more subdued scenery-consumer, Elizabeth Taylor for Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. Producer Walter Wanger’s comment on the Hayward win: “Thank heavens, now we can all relax. Susie got what she’s been chasing for 20 years.”
** Want to ruin a mood? Start talking about capital punishment—with the opposing crowd. While a solid argument could be made for its mis-application, and its irreversible closing of cases that sometimes prove to have been false, the movies always seem to see fit to chew over the Morality Bone on the fault lines of “it makes us all complicit” or “reduces us to their level”, blahblahwhimpersniffle. Nice try, Mr. & Mrs. Limousine. This movie does a detailed job showing the lead-up and enactment of Graham’s last moments, but skillfully sidesteps going into the senseless, brutal murder of elderly and crippled Mabel Monahan—don’t want to prejudice the jury/audience. The worst use of that kind of selective phoniness may be in Dead Man Walking, with the Christ-like ‘murder’ of Sean Penn. Kneejerk liberals all too often aren’t much better than the stupid, rabid right-wingers when to comes to crafting one-sided debate about something they ‘believe’ in. As said, a good way to spoil dinner. What do you mean, no second date?