The murder trial that shook the world!
As the exclamation mark in the title suggests, the anti-capital punishment film I Want to Live! is a full-tilt melodrama. It deals with the social issues at its core with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, features big, loud, broad performances and practically places neon lights around its (now very tame) elements of tawdriness. Even so, it has a curious power: it is a passionate relic of a failed movement. Watching it decades after its initial release, we know that the one thing it longs for most deeply will ultimately be denied.
The film opens with two quotes. One comes from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Edward S. Montgomery: “You are about to see a FACTUAL STORY. It is based on articles I wrote, other newspaper and magazine articles, court records, legal and private correspondence, investigative reports, personal interviews – and the letters of Barbara Graham.”
The other comes from philosopher Albert Camus, who calls the film a “merciless story.” He suggest that film’s purpose is to “confront us with the realities of our time,” and that director Robert Wise is about to show us a reality that, “we don’t have the right to ignore.”
Opening with these pieces feels like a plea from the filmmakers to take this film and its message seriously (there was reportedly an additional anti-death penalty bit of text that would have been added to the film’s conclusion, but was ultimately scrapped). As such, it’s a little jarring to shift from that note of gravity into the actual movie, which immediately establishes itself as a pulpy entertainment underscored by growling jazz.
Barbara (Susan Hayward, I’ll Cry Tomorrow) is a prostitute who specializes in luring unsuspecting clients into fixed card games (and later splitting the profits with her unsavory collaborators). The film practically wallows in this material, highlighting and underlining the seedy world she lives in with great enthusiasm. Barbara eventually tries a “normal life” on for size – a marriage, a kid, a mortgage – but it never quite takes. Her husband’s drug addiction and abusive behavior sends her back into a life of crime, and she eventually finds herself framed for murder.
This is where we find the meat of the film, as Barbara goes on trial and is forced to do everything within her power to attempt to avoid the death penalty. In doing so, she makes a series of devastating tactical errors (taking bad advice from untrustworthy people) and only manages to tighten the noose around her own neck. Next, she’s on death row, simultaneously attempting to accept the idea that she is going to die and seek out legal loopholes that might grant her mercy.
Barbara isn’t really a good person, and the film doesn’t try to paper over her failings. Yes, there are moments when life has forced her hand, but she made a lot of bad decisions that led her to those moments. Still, she doesn’t deserve to die, and Hayward does a remarkable job of finding the character’s humanity and making us feel the full weight of the injustice that is unfolding. The film’s most powerful material takes place in its final act, as the inhuman, government-mandated execution ritual unfolds step by agonizing step.
The film spotlights the flaws in the system that allow innocent people to pay the ultimate price, but it also wants its viewers to recognize the barbarism of the death penalty itself. It makes its case powerfully: Hayward won an Academy Award for her performance. In the years since, plenty of other similarly-themed films have been made, and a lot of those have won awards, too. Nothing in the real world changed, though. Nearly sixty years later, we’re still not even close to abolishing the death penalty (just a few weeks before I wrote this review, three states declined the opportunity to do so). How many more decades must we wait until we no longer need movies like this?
I Want to Live! (Blu-ray) offers a solid 1080p/1.66:1 transfer. The image is crisp, clean and sharp, offering a moderate amount of grain, impressive depth and only a handful of scratches and flecks. The DTS HD 1.0 Master Audio track gets the job done nicely, too, presenting the score and dialogue with clarity and generally finding a solid balance during the busier scenes. Supplements include an isolated score track (which also contains an audio commentary segment featuring Robert Wise’s associate Mike Mattesino), a trailer and a booklet featuring an essay on the film.
I Want to Live! certainly shows its age, but remains an absorbing and ultimately quite affecting experience. It’s worth checking out.