MGM // 1958 // 121 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dezhda Mountz (Retired) // June 3rd, 2002
A harrowing tale that will leave you breathless with suspense.
In 1953, Barbara Graham, an erstwhile forger, prostitute, and general floozy, was accused of brutally murdering an elderly California lady with two co-horts. Pleading innocence, her trial was comparable to the O.J. Simpson circus of the '90s, causing a media sensation and a celebrity following. Journalist R. Montgomery started investigating the case, and his notes, letters, and interviews provided director Robert Wise with invaluable material for the biographical movie I Want To Live, starring Susan Hayward (The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Valley of the Dolls). Her passionate performance won her a Best Actress Award. Is the transfer to DVD, thanks to MGM, award worthy as well?
Barbara Graham (Susan Hayward) lives hard and plays hard. She writes bad checks, receives money for sexual encounters, and mingles in bad circles. Even when she falls in love, it's a disaster -- her husband is a heroin addict. Still, she tries to maintain some semblance of a family life for the sake of her infant son Tommy.
In quiet Burbank, CA, an elderly woman named Mabel Monohan is brutally murdered, perhaps for her husband's stash of gambling profits. Two men that Barbara runs around with say she was also involved in the crime. Now she's in over her head, and her wise cracks to the cops and refusal to take a lie detector test don't help her situation.
After a tedious trial and daily abuse from the press, Graham and her cohorts are convicted and sentenced to death. Psychiatrist Carl Palmberg (Theodore Bikel) and journalist Ed Montgomery (Simon Oakland) try to save her, and appeals to overturn the decision are made. Still, these appeals may not be enough to save Barbara, and she knows it. The suspenseful film follows her right up to the gas chamber.
Like many of the best dramas, I Want to Live! is based on a true story. Its brutal reality -- from Graham's run-ins with johns to her petty crimes to her gut-wrenching wait for a death-row pardon -- never lets you forget this is real. Yet, the film never feels exaggerated. Some may say Hayward's performance is pure melodrama, and it sticks out like a sore thumb in the post-Method acting era. I'd argue she commits so fully to the terror and conflict of the situation that her portrayal of Graham is riveting. She gives it all she's got, and you believe her one hundred percent.
Robert Wise's direction is excellent as well, and subsequently rewarded with an Oscar nomination. His jittery close-ups, coolly distant camera movement, and agility with his actors make for a mesmerizing film. He understands the terror Graham goes through and more importantly knows how to translate that terror without going over the top. This is a drama, not a melodrama.
As Graham survives the first trial, deals with the press, and yearns to see her baby boy, she maintains a wry sense of humor. Hardened but compassionate, she deals with her sentence with stubborn wit. However, the most difficult part of the film is when she waits to go to the chamber. Wise films the wardens meticulously preparing the gas chamber, and a nurse, also named Barbara, befriends Graham as she gets ready to die. One phone call after another from the courts hold up her execution, and you literally do not figure out the final outcome till the very end of the movie. It is a quiet, almost tedious segment of the film, but worth it -- the emotions are played expertly by Wise and Co. Adding to it all is the jazzy score by John Mandel, reflecting Graham's own musical preferences and adding a cool, sad aura to the film, similar to Duke Ellington's work scoring Anatomy Of A Murder.
The transfer is lovely, with just a few white blotches here and there and a bit of grain that is never distracting. Blacks were dark, whites crisp, and all grays in between well defined. Really impressive transfer here, with few if any flaws. The 1.66:1 widescreen looks great, with little to no edge enhancement. This aspect ratio looks good for this drama, reminding you why some films play better on the small screen.
Naturally, the Dolby 1.0 Mono soundtrack is totally front-ended, without much depth. Do you need great sound here? With this kind of jazz score -- performed by a top notch group of musicians -- yeah, you do. Case closed. There was also a remarkable amount of misalignment -- about 70% of the time, the dialogue was a few frames earlier than the picture. This was certainly distracting and I'm wondering if anyone thought to fix this, if it were even possible, depending on how the print was archived. Definitely a major flaw, and an annoying one at that.
For extras, MGM has thrown a trailer our way, and that's about it. Given the controversy and urban legend surrounding this case (see the link provided that gives background information on Barbara Graham's story), a short documentary or archived news reports would have been much appreciated. Rumors abound -- that Graham confessed to the murder to a prison warden, that she was a heroin addict herself -- and to have them addressed would make for a juicy addition to this film's DVD.
A beautiful transfer, great acting, and outstanding production values make I Want to Live a keeper for any classic film fan. The DVD here gets by on the strength of its original value: acting, direction, and music score.
This Judge has some mixed feelings -- don't want to see the film go to the gas chamber, but could MGM serve some time for not catching the dialogue mismatch and lack of extras? How about a month in the slammer?
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Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 121 Minutes
Release Year: 1958
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Theatrical Trailer