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I Want to Live! (1958) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

barbara graham film hayward

Principal social theme: capital punishment

United Artists. No MPAA rating. Featuring: Susan Hayward, Simon Oakland, Virginia Vincent, Theodore Bikel, Wesley Lau, Philip Coolidge, Lou Krugmar, John Marley, Dabbs Greer, Gavin MacLeod, Raymond Bailey, Rusty Lane, Jack Weston. Written by Nelson Gidding and Don M. Mankiewicz based on a series of newspaper articles by Ed Montgomery and selected letters by Barbara Graham. Cinematography by Lionel Lindon. Edited by William Hornbeck. Music by Johnny Mandel. Produced by Walter Wanger. Directed by Robert Wise. B&W. 120 minutes.


This film was based on the true life story of convicted killer Barbara Graham, one of the most controversial cases in which a woman received the death penalty. The screenplay and production made an extra effort to strive for authenticity, although it did portray Graham as a completely innocent party, a contention that has few adherents among criminologists and crime historians. The strength of the film is its powerful depiction of the details of the process of execution, an emotionally draining experience for the viewer. I Want to Live! was a considerable success, and Susan Hayward won an Academy Award as Best Actress for her portrayal of Graham. Two other films were inspired by the case, Why Must I Die? (1960) starring Terry Moore and a 1983 telefilm remake with Lindsay Wagner in the title role. Although good, neither film had the power or impact of the original production.


The film opens with a printed testimony by journalist Ed Montgomery attesting that the film is a dramatization of the factual story of Barbara Graham. The story then unfolds; in an almost haphazard fashion, showing Barbara’s background as a gutsy “good-time girl,” who gets into trouble by perjuring herself to help two hoods whom she likes. She does jail time and eventually weds a bartender named Hank Graham, her fourth marriage. She becomes a mother, but the marriage is soon on the rocks when Hank develops a drug habit. In real life, Barbara also had a drug habit, but the film presents her as free of drugs. Barbara is forced to resort to crime to earn a living. Finally, she is arrested with her crime partners Emmett Perkins, Bruce King, and Jack Santo. Barbara is stunned when she learns that she is charged with the murder of a crippled woman named Mabel Monahan, who was brutally pistol-whipped to death during a robbery. (The film never portrays the killing, so the audience assumes that Barbara knows nothing about it.) King becomes a state witness, claiming that Barbara committed the murder. Barbara has no alibi, but a girlfriend offers to provide her with a witness, Ben Miranda, who will claim Barbara was with him the night of the crime. At the trial, however, Miranda turns out to be an undercover cop who claimed Barbara confessed to him that she is guilty. She is convicted and sentenced to death.

One reporter who covered the trial, Ed Montgomery, comes to believe that the trial and conviction were irregular and unjust. Carl Palmberg, a noted criminologist, also takes up Barbara’s cause. He strongly believes he can win an appeal. She is crushed, however, when Palmberg dies unexpectedly. The rest of the picture covers the execution process in minute detail, including legal maneuvers, last-minute stays, and the death watch. The process becomes agony for Barbara, who slowly breaks down. She leaves a letter for Ed Montgomery to be opened after her execution in which she expresses her appreciation for his support.


Much of the impact of I Want to Live! is based on the charismatic performance of Susan Hayward in the title role. Students of the case contend that Hayward makes Graham a far more sympathetic character than the actual Graham, who was a hardened criminal. For example, when she was originally charged with the Monahan murder, Graham did not protest her innocence, as Hayward does, but instead boasted, “You will never prove it.” At each turn, Graham is presented in the best possible light, emphasizing that she was nothing but a fun, party girl at heart. Hayward also endows her character with a number of colorful gestures, such as always rattling a pair of imaginary dice to demonstrate that she is a carefree gambler in the hands of fate. The last half hour of the film is shattering, as the audience witnesses the torment experienced by a condemned prisoner trying to maintain her composure and dignity as she faces her final moments. The screenplay also depicts the effect of an execution on those who carry it out as well, the warden, prison guards, clergy, witnesses, doctors, and nurses who are involved in this process. Whether or not these people believe Graham is guilty seems immaterial; they are largely repelled by the process. The decorum and quiet compassion of the warden, excellently played by Raymond Bailey, speaks more eloquently about the issue of capital punishment than the wordy diatribes that are present in other similar productions. This aspect of the film could serve as an excellent discussion point for students in analyzing the issue. How does witnessing an execution affect the viewer’s attitude toward capital punishment? What would be the impact of televised executions? I Want to Live! is able to serve as an excellent sounding board for a number of aspects regarding the death penalty.

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