I Want to Live!: Classic Film Column



It was March 9, 1953 that the brutal, cold-blooded killing of Mabel Monahan took place in Burbank, California. A 64-year old widow, Mrs. Monahan was bludgeoned and strangled, then left in the hallway of her house, her body to be discovered by her gardener two days later. The three people arrested and convicted of the murder were executed in California’s gas chamber a little more than two years later (June 3, 1955), and a story based on the life of the female member of that trio was brought to life not long afterwards (1958) in the film I Want to Live. (Of course, “Hollywood license” was taken, resulting in several situations being fictionalized and/or depicted in a way which was not how they actually happened.) Directed by Robert Wise and starring Susan Hayward in an Academy Award-winning performance, I Want to Live is a gritty, hard-hitting “discussion piece” kind of movie. The film, which will more than likely leave you questioning Mrs. Graham’s guilt, was based on the newspaper articles of Pulitzer Prize-winning San Francisco Examiner reporter, Edward S. Montgomery, and the letters of Barbara Graham.

Good-time party girl, Barbara Ward (Susan Hayward), is living a fast and loose lifestyle when she is arrested on prostitution charges. Now with a criminal record, Barbara gets in further trouble with the law when, despite knowing perjury is a felony, she agrees to provide a phony alibi for two men who want to beat a rap. Convicted of perjury charges, Barbara serves a year’s time and is put on probation for five years. During this period, she marries a man named Henry Graham then gives birth to a little boy. Henry is a drug addict who cannot hold a job, which results in Barbara passing bad checks and, ultimately, breaking her parole.

Though married, Barbara keeps company with two men who are suspected of the recent murder of a Burbank widow; a sting operation is put into action and the men and Barbara are arrested. Completely hostile to authorities, Barbara refuses to confess or to cooperate with prosecutors and when she is questioned by the press, her belligerent attitude begins the initial action of trying her in the court of public opinion. With the headline “Bloody Babs, the Tiger Woman,” reporter Ed Montgomery writes that Barbara is “young, attractive, belligerent, immoral, and guilty as hell.”

As the case goes to trial, Barbara is fingered by the others as the one who did the killing. Though she claims she’s innocent and wasn’t anywhere near Mabel Monahan’s home that evening, Barbara has no alibi, and in an effort to concoct one, she lies that she had been with a man at a hotel. As it turns out, though, the man who offers to be her phony alibi is an undercover police officer intent on getting a confession from her. When he threatens to walk out on her unless she admits to having been with the other men, she agrees that she was, and the confession is brought forward as evidence against her. Even though Barbara claims her “confession” was a lie due to fear of her alibi falling through, having done time for perjury in the past, she is more than ever thought to be a compulsive liar and without question, guilty of the crime for which she is standing trial.

All three suspects are convicted and sentenced to death in the gas chamber at San Quentin Prison. Barbara moves to Death Row and as the film plays out, Ed Montgomery begins to believe she is innocent. Feeling the press created the climate which condemned her, he seeks to change the climate. With hopes to have a lie detector test administered, a psychologist is called in, but it is all to no avail. Barbara’s appeal is denied… execution is inevitable… the gas chamber is prepared. In the end, the question remains… is Barbara Graham a murderer? Yes, she is hard, belligerent, immoral, and unlikeable… but is she a murderer? This film’s view is that she is not.

In all, I Want to Live received 6 Academy Award nominations, taking home the win in the Lead Actress category. Without question, Miss Hayward deserved the Oscar she won for her work in this film, for she played the hardened Mrs. Graham to absolute perfection. Truly, there are not enough adjectives to describe the performance she gave: she was brilliant… awesome… sensational… terrific… completely stellar. While I think Miss Hayward was an amazing actress who gave many superb performances, I believe I Want to Live is definitely her finest hour. Adding to the fantastic acting in this film is the incredible score. It’s perfect and really adds to the realism. The death row and gas chamber scenes are powerful and haunting, especially as Barbara mentally prepares herself for the walk to her execution, only to receive a last-minute stay by the governor. Those torturous moments are brought vividly to life by Miss Hayward.

For those who like meaty, hard-hitting, gritty dramas with completely magnificent acting, this is an absolute must-see. No matter whether you are a proponent of the death penalty or an opponent, or whether you believe Barbara Graham was in fact guilty or wrongly convicted, you absolutely will not be disappointed with the caliber of this film. It is truly outstanding! And who knows, after watching it, you may (like me) be inspired to learn a bit more about the actual case upon which it is based. ■



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