Screening Classic Hollywood: “I Want to Live!” (1958)

Warning: Full spoilers for the film follow.

I’ve been wanting to watch I Want to Live! for quite some time now, if for no other reason than that it’s referenced twice in The Golden Girls (always a solid reason to watch a film, IMO). Well, I did, and I have to say, I was enraptured from the first scene to the last.

The film centers on Barbara Graham, a woman accused of murdering an elderly widow. When she is convicted by the court, she must do all she can to try to save her own life, not just for her own sake, but also for her son’s.

From its first canted shots, I Want to Live! wears its noir-ness on its sleeve. It has an almost morbid fascination with the lurid and the macabre, whether that be the seediness of the underworld or the minutiae of the execution that occurs at the film’s conclusion. As with any noir, there is a palpable sense of unease that saturates the film, a sense that not all is as it should be, that we in the audience are looking in on a dark world, a sinister place of crime and death.

A significant source of this unease is the way in which the sound design and the camera work in sync to convey this sense of a topsy-turvy, uncertain world of criminality and vice. In one early scene, for example, the frantic editing combines with the ecstatic music to conjure up an almost ecstatic embrace of the sensational. This is a world where the excitement of the underworld is always tinged with menace, whether that be from the cops or from its own denizens.

At the same time as it is a noir, it is also very much a melodrama. Though Barbara tries to find happiness and fulfillment in the domestic bliss of marriage, it turns out to be something far more unsatisfying. Her husband is both physically abusive and a drug addict, and her dire financial straits lead Barbara right back into the world of crime and deceit that proves to be her undoing. Though she might be a murderer, the film invites us to feel for her by showing her as both a devoted mother and a woman wrongly accused by her criminal compatriots. And, in keeping with melodrama’s obsession with time (see the work of Linda Williams for more on this), it is always/already too late for Barbara to be saved, despite the ever-present hope of a reprieve from the governor. The last few moments of the film are an agony to watch, as time slowly ticks down until the fateful execution. By the end, the film has utterly convinced us that Barbara is the victim of her own story.

Though she’s not everyone’s cup of tea, Susan Hayward owns the screen, portraying a woman who’s tough as nails and yet has an inner softness. Hayward manages to capture Barbara’s swings between fierce independence and vulnerability, between strength and despair. The brilliance of Hayward’s performance in this film comes from her ability to embody the two poles of femininity that are such a key part of postwar film noir, the femme fatale and the good girl, sometimes in the same scene. She has some of the sharpest lines of the film–her waspish tongue gets her in trouble more than once–yet she can also deliver lines filled with tearful pathos, the anguish of a mother parted from her child, the terror of a victim going to her own death.

Fictional it may be, but I Want to Live! makes an eloquent case for the abolition of the death penalty. Just as importantly, it also exposes the ways in which both men, and the institutions that they dominate, care more for headlines and public affirmation than they do about the actual pursuit of justice. By the end, we come to see Barbara as a woman ensnared by these systems–particularly the press–and her ultimate defeat at their hands gives the film’s message just that extra bit of bite that makes it truly effective.

All in all, I very much loved I Want to Live!, and it definitely deserved its Oscar nominations.

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