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I Want to Live! (Robert Wise) 1958


    Director Robert Wise hadnít made a musical prior to 1961ís West Side Story, but itís easy to see why he would have been considered an ideal candidate for the job after viewing his 1958 death penalty drama I Want to Live! The early scenes fluctuate with a jazzy energy that puts across the wild life that Barbara Graham (Susan Hayward), its protagonist, leads. Up-tempo music permeates throughout, providing ample opportunities for Hayward to work herself into a Bacchic frenzy. Skewed camera angles and rapid cutting give the film far more personality than the average Hollywood product, and the seediness of Grahamís lifestyle is conveyed with about as much sordid detail as would have been possible during the studio era. Graham is unapologetically a woman with loose morals, and her crass demeanor is mostly likeable only because the film doesnít really give us anyone else to sympathize with. We feel as cut off from the rest of the world as she does. Her parade of manipulative lovers leaves her with a past that makes it easy to prejudge her, and the world is all-too-willing to do so. Still, the melodramatic swells that fill Grahamís Sirkian life as a free citizen do little to prepare us for the harrowing second half of the film.



    As I Want to Live!, which is based on real-life events, progresses, it becomes a condemnation of the American judicial system that forces the audience to watch as the possibly innocent Graham is railroaded, by the demands of the plot and by justice, into a death sentence. Her precipitous decline is rooted in her wholesome desire to settle down and start a family, so the horror that envelops the movie after the heroine is condemned is surprising. Torn apart by the media, her fellow inmates, and those she considered her friends, Graham finds little comfort in others. Haywardís steely visage begins to splinter from the burden of her stress, and the beauty of her performance emerges. Since she was so headstrong at the filmís start, the traumatizing effect of the death sentence becomes evident in her utter defeat. Enjoying the abuse requires a bit of masochism on the viewerís part, as Grahamís cell is turned into a tableau of suffering. Still, the slap in the face has a surprising sting. The eponymous declaration has real force when itís finally uttered. Thereís nothing sappy here, even when Grahamís child is brought to visit, and the damning condemnation of the media, who latch onto her case with sensationalizing vigor, still feels relevant today. That Wise can make this material, like its heroine, fall so far so fast makes I Want to Live! an effective biopic.

 * * * 1/2 


Jeremy Heilman