Take a Drink: for that devil jazz music
Take a Drink: for the stuffed tiger
Take a Drink: when perjury doesn’t pay
Take a Drink: whenever a character does
Take a Drink: for gallows humor
Take a Drink: whenever Barbara gets into even hotter water
Do a Shot: for rolling the dice
Do a Shot: for the “tiny” minaphone
By: Henry J. Fromage (A Toast) –
One beautiful result of my frequent random reviews selected from my large meta-list of movies to watch is that I run across spectacular films now and again that I had no idea existed. When I drew I Want to Live! last week I’m not sure what I imagined. Pro-life documentary? Inspiring melodrama about a closeted housewife discovering her inner bohemian?
Really depressing farmyard cartoon?
Well, I figured out that title eventually. Susan Hayward stars as Barbara Graham, a Good Time Gal who doesn’t know how to stay out of trouble, and who eventually runs with a group of petty criminals who kill an old woman during a robbery attempt. She claims to be innocent of involvement with the crime, but finds herself in a literal fight for her life in court.
I went into this film blind, and doing so really helped me appreciate the incredibly sure hand director Robert Wise guides this film with. He has an exacting control of pace and tone, never more obvious than when he makes an unconventional choice with them. The precise shot selection and camera movements, the energetic editing, the evocative transitions, even how he employs Johnny Mandel’s jazz score (one of the first of its kind- it would inspire larger profile musicians like Duke Ellington to work on film scores), reveal exactly what he wants them to, and keep us exactly where he wants us.
Robert Wise?- ed.
At the start, this looks like a portrait of a sharp, sarcastic, and lively troublemaker and fun-lover who falls in and out of the wrong crowd. This part of the film is very observant, and a little daring for the time. The “get a job, get married” path a prison worker suggests to Barbara has its pitfalls as well, particularly then, and was and is no guarantee of happiness. When she is arrested on suspicion of the murder of the old lady, however (which we never exactly learn the truth of, much as the real life case the film’s based on), a noose begins to tighten.
With horror, you begin to realize that this is a film about the death penalty, and one that makes you feel more acutely the fear and desperation of the condemned than any I’ve ever seen. Almost cruelly, we, like Barbara, are given shreds of hope to cling to, and go through the same cycles of denial and acceptance she does. The night before her planned execution is played out as slowly as possible, dragging brilliantly and far too realistically to a conclusion I won’t reveal, but which I can ensure you feels as harrowing as has been put to film.
No tortured plot twists necessary
Susan Hayward is absolutely beastly in her Oscar-winning role. She starts out world-weary and acerbic, perfectly delivering Nelson Gidding and Don Mankiewicz’s sharp, snappy 50s noir dialogue, but her trial brings out an entire cycle of shocked grief, peace, and desperation. Her internal struggle is never more compelling than when it appears to be at odds with her outward appearance. She’s simply great.
I Want to Live! boasts an all-time performance from Susan Hayward and perhaps the tightest direction of Robert Wise’s career, delivering a heartbreaking plea against the death penalty.