Robert Wise is a director whose name I recognise primarily as being the man behind two of the biggest movie musicals of all time; Best Picture winners West Side Story and The Sound of Music. Wise won or shared the Best Director prize for both of those all-singing, all-dancing epics however his first appearance in the category was for a very different movie altogether. I Want to Live is a grimy, biographical drama about Barbara Graham; a petty criminal who in 1955 was executed in the gas chamber after being found guilty for murdering an eighty-year-old woman. The grittiness in the film is unflinching as we learn of Graham’s colourful backstory before following her journey through the trial and eventually to the chamber itself.
The film’s screenplay was based on newspaper articles and letters written by journalist Ed Montgomery who had corresponded with Barbara during her time awaiting execution and had been instrumental in attempting to appeal her original guilty verdict. It was clear that, after initially berating her in the papers, Montgomery believed that Graham was innocent and a victim of circumstance so the film’s first third was dedicated to illustrating her life prior to the trial. In my opinion, this is the weakest part of the movie as Barbara lurches from prostitution to perjury charges into marriage with a drug addict who has little time for she or their young son. She eventually jumps bail and associates with the trio who are eventually charged with the murder with the first perpetrator attempting to lesser his sentence by giving the police the names of the others involved with the crime. The second third of the film revolves around the trial and explores how Barbara became a scapegoat through her decision-making and stark comments to the press. It’s clear that Montgomery expresses regret to how he contributed to Barbara’s guilty verdict and how she was presented as the ring-leader of the group even though a psychological evaluation later determined that she had an aversion to violent crime. My favourite part of the movie came in the film’s final third as Montgomery attempted to launch an appeal for Graham alongside criminologist Carl Palmberg which halted when the latter suddenly died. It’s a testament to both Wise and the screenwriters that I believed that Graham may be acquitted even though I knew she’d be executed and when that final pivotal phone call came through I was shocked that Barbara was being sent to her death.
I found the execution scenes to be truly upsetting as Graham requested to be masked as not to see the faces of the baying crowd and actress Susan Hayward herself practised these scenes wearing a hood. The scenes leading up to the execution and Barbara’s last grasps of life felt realistic partly as Wise had attended an execution himself prior to shooting the sequence. Seeing the chamber being prepared ahead of Barbara’s execution was, in my opinion, a masterstroke as it gave the film an authenticity that other directors may not have brought to the piece. There’s no denying that Wise deserved his Oscar nod for helming a gritty depiction of a character who was chewed up and spit out by life before receiving the ultimate bitter blow. Wise employed a downbeat filming style and several of Oscar-nominated cinematographer William Hornbeck’s felt jarring and off-putting. The Oscar-nominated screenplay similarly did an excellent job of making me gradually feel sympathy for Barbara and by the third act I had completely changed my mind about the character. The film’s fourth Oscar nomination, for the editing team, was also deserved especially during the trial scenes where testimony was interspersed with newspaper headlines and TV reports. One element of I Want to Live which I feel missed out on an Oscar nod was Johnny Mandel’s fantastic jazz score which added a unique feel to the movie. I believe that if I Want to Live had contained a sweeping melodramatic score then it wouldn’t feel as modern as it did and Mandel’s music fits in well with the colourful aspects of Barbara’s life. Furthermore, it felt reminiscent of the score that Duke Ellington provided for Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder a year later and I think the director was influenced by several of Wise’s choices in I Want to Live!
The film’s only Oscar win that year came in the Best Actress category with Susan Hayward winning for unflinching portrayal of Barbara, a character that she clearly sympathised with herself. I was critical of Hayward’s performance early on and was unconvinced by her portrayal of Barbara in the earlier scenes feeling she was over-acting. It was only when we got to the trial and the subsequent appeals that I appreciated Hayward’s performance and ultimately came to the decision that she was deserving of her Oscar-win. Hayward brilliantly depicts the transformation of Barbara from mouthy criminal to redemptive mother who, as the title suggests, decides that she wants to live. Hayward brings a physicality to the role but also brings a vulnerability to Barbara which made me sympathise with her and made the execution scenes even more harrowing. It’s in fact rare that a film on this blog provoked such a strong reaction in me but I was deeply affected by I Want to Live thanks primarily to the work done by Wise and Hayward. The trickier decision to make is whether the movie deserved a Best Picture nomination especially when the field was as strong as it was in 1958. Arguably the weakest nominee that year was eventual winner Gigi although I believe that I Want to Live could replace the enjoyable Auntie Mame; which had its moments but which wasn’t as weighty as the other nominees. One thing I do know is that I’m glad I watched I Want to Live as it’s a masterclass in how to create a character-led biographical movie and it’s made me appreciate Wise as more than just a director of big budget Oscar-winning musicals.
Next, we head to 1956 where I try my best to sit through a three-hour adaptation of one of the longest novels in literary history.