While it’s an exhausted trend these days, true crime has been a frequent inspiration for Hollywood filmmaking. Thrilling stories can justify the excessive styles of genres like melodrama and film noir because the events “really happened” (more or less). Yet Hollywood’s motives with these films were not entirely cynical. Many of these films have strong moral impulses, specifically to highlight injustice or argue for the innocence of the wrongly convicted.
I Want to Live! is one of the classics of this kind of true-crime melodrama. Directed by Robert Wise, it adapts the story of Barbara Graham, a “good-time girl” with a long rap sheet of minor offenses and a taste for jazz and liquor, who was convicted and sentenced to death for a murder in a robbery-gone-wrong. Her co-conspirators testified against her, but some of the physical evidence seemed to suggest her innocence. Because of this, and nagging questions about her legal representation, some journalists became convinced of her innocence. The was highly publicized (the newspapers dubbed her “Bloody Babs”), and, after her execution, it became a cause celebre for those opposed to the death penalty.
Based on the reporting of one of these sympathetic journalists, Edward Montogomery (as well as on Montogomery’s correspondence with Graham), I Want to Live! draws a refreshingly textured portrait of Graham, and is astute about the often-grimy elements of “celebrity” trials like hers. Detailing her life before the crime, the tight editing and canted angles build up a frenzied, lurid atmospheres of the jazz clubs and dive bars where Barbara parties and sometimes engages in sex work. It’s all very noir-ish, and as in other true-crime-inspired films – like Richard Brooks’ In Cold Blood, which takes some cues from I Want to Live! – riffing on film noir style powerfully evokes that genre’s sense of fatalism and impending dread.
Women accused of crimes are always doubly accused. They are scrutinized not only based on any evidence against them, but also by what they wear, who they sleep with, how they parent – any way that their behavior deviates from how we think women are “supposed” to act in traumatic circumstances. The most striking image in a very stylish film comes when Barbara surrenders to the authorities. She steps forward, and her body transforms into a stark silhouette while a gaggle of flashbulbs go off, as all the paparazzi try to get that perfect shot. Given its time, I Want to Live! Is surprisingly aware of the raw deal women defendants get in a “trial by media.” All the unpleasant court scenes are intercut with TV and radio broadcasts casting her as a femme fatale.
For all its other merits, I Want to Live! rests on Susan Hayward’s performance as Barbara. (Hayward won the Best Actress Oscar for the role.) Her expressions can quickly switch between coolness and anger, from stoicism to intense vulnerability. It’s refreshing to find a female defendant who doesn’t conform to the mold or play the game. There’s no meekness, no finding the light of the Lord; Barbara never bows her head, remaining defiant to the end. Hayward sells this defiance with insouciant poses and fiery eyes. You’re enthralled and proud of her, even as you see her dig a bigger and bigger hole for herself.
The film’s final third manages to build impressive tension as it inches toward its inevitable, gruesome conclusion. Barbara endures small moments of false hope, as appeals peter out and the governor issues a brief stay of her execution. The back-and-forth finally gets to Barbara, and her pure animal terror finally surfaces. The execution itself is full of emphatic tight shots, paired with an unsparing matter-of-factness. Like In Cold Blood, this gothic horror of the scene leads to an existential despair, as execution seems to only bring more senseless death.
In the current true crime boom, we’re seeing more and more films like I Want to Live! Since we now have so much information at our fingertips, it’s easy to find all the places where a film has taken dramatic license, and moral qualms about these kinds of fictionalizations. I Want to Live also takes dramatic license, and emphasizes the evidence that favors Graham’s innocence. (Hayward herself came to believe that Graham was guilty; you can see that in the performance, and it makes for a tension that the filmmakers may not have intended.) The film is more powerful, more legitimate as an indictment of the death penalty. But these kinds of dramas have great significance in the current age of scrutinizing the criminal justice system. If melodrama has a simple philosophical cosmos, where good and evil are set in stark contrast to each other, intense emotions can be clarifying calls to action.