I Want to Live
Susan Hayward

"God, if people love horror stories, let's show them some real-life horror—because that's what this is!"*
—Robert Wise, when he was shown the story idea for I WANT TO LIVE.

Susan Hayward

Susan Hayward

Driven by brilliant pacing, a script that wastes no words, an Academy Award-winning performance by Susan Hayward, and one of the best jazz film soundtracks of all time, I WANT TO LIVE draws the viewer into the life of Barbara Graham, the first woman ever to be executed in the state of California. It is one of Robert Wise's best films, as well as one in which he put some of the most emotional investment. The research he did for this movie probably ranks as the grimmest of any director: he actually went to San Quentin to witness the execution of a murderer before taking on the task of recreating the gassing of Barbara Graham:

"When the time came to restage it, I knew what the atmosphere was, what the attitudes were, what the people looked and acted like."*

Not surprisingly, the film was very controversial, with the Police Department claiming that Graham had been convicted and that the film made a fiction of the case. It is true that Wise was trying to make a statement about capital punishment, but as with all of his films, he tried not to get on a soapbox: "...we did not say in so many words, 'Capital punishment is wrong and we should end it!' We felt that if the picture itself didn't say it, we had failed."*

Synopsis Barbara is beautiful but amoral. Having worked every racket from perjury to prostitution, she comes to San Francisco, but is soon sent to a women's prison for a year. Barbara has her own code of ethics and it is for helping a pal in trouble that she ends up in jail. Upon her release she goes to work for two gamblers, Emmett Perkins and Jack Santo. For a Posterchange, her job—steering likely prospects into card games—is nonviolent most of the time and brings in good money. After some time Barbara decides to go straight; she can afford it now. But she makes her first mistake when she marries Henry Graham, a handsome bartender and one of Perkins' helpers. Graham is on dope, and when their baby is born, the marriage is already disintegrating. Henry demands their last ten dollars for a fix and she throws the bill at his feet and tells him to get out. Barbara, desperate and broke, with debt collectors hounding her, goes into hiding with Santo and Perkins. The police follow them, however, and they are surrounded one night, as they talk quietly in a dark room. At police headquarters in San Francisco, they are ruthlessly questioned and Barbara discovers that they have been picked up on a murder rap. The police are convinced that the three, with Bruce King, murdered an old widow in her home a few weeks earlier. Barbara, not realizing the seriousness of her situation, goads the police and refuses to answer their questions. Meanwhile, Bruce King turns state's evidence and names Barbara as the actual killer. With no other alibi than being home with her six-month-old son and her drug-addict husband, she agrees to "buy" an alibi from a friend of her former cellmate. The "friend" insists that Barbara admit her guilt to him before accepting the deal. In despair, seeing no other way out, Barbara tells him that she went to the widow's house that night. During the trial, Santo and Perkins remain silent while she eagerly awaits her "friend's" testimony. Suddenly he turns up as a witness for the prosecution. The "alibi" had been a trick and the "friend" was a police officer. He testifies that Barbara had admitted that she had been at the scene of the crime. Barbara gets a chance to defend herself on the stand, but the prosecutor focuses on her sordid past and her story is ripped apart. The jury is out for five and a half hours deliberating and returns the verdict "Guilty as charged." There is no recommendation for clemency, and Barbara is sentenced to die in the gas chamber. As she leaves the courtroom, Barbara is interviewed by Ed Montgomery, the reporter who has been writing about the "titian-haired murderess." He is stunned when Barbara blames him for the verdict. Barbara starts her terrifying journey to the gas chamber at the women's prison in Corona, and, as time passes, more and more people believe that she's innocent. Even Ed Montgomery switches over to her side and joins the campaign to free Barbara Graham. A famous psychologist, Carl Palmberg, after interviewing her in prison, reports that she is amoral and antisocial, but incapable of killing. But appeals, campaigns, and legal maneuvers to prove her innocent fail. Barbara is taken to the death cell at San Quentin, and eventually to the gas chamber.

From The Films of Susan Hayward

Wise Facts
  • The Los Angeles police department pressured Wise and United Artists to abandon the project.
  • I WANT TO LIVE was one of 1958's top box office draws.
  • Credits: 120 min. United Artists/Figaro; Distributed by: United Artists/Figaro; Directed by: Robert Wise;  Produced by: Walter Wanger;  Screenplay by: Nelson Gidding;  Edited by: William Hornbeck;  Director of Photography: Lionel Lindon;  Music by: Johnny Mandel;  Production Design by: Forrest E. Jolmston;  Sound by: Fred Lau;  Costumes by: Wes Jeffries, Angela Alexander;  Make-up by: Tom Tuttle, Jack Stone;  Hair by: Emmy Eckhardt, Lillian Hokom Ugrin; 
    S. Hayward Cast  Susan Hayward (Barbara Graham), Simon Oakland (Ed Montgomery), Virginia Vincent (Peg), Theodore Bikel (Carl Palmberg), Wesley Lau (Henry Graham), Philip Coolidge (Emmett Perkins), Lou Krugman (Jack Santo), James Philbrook (Bruce King), Bartlett Robinson (District Attorney), Gage Clark (Richard G. Tribow), Joe de Santis (Al Matthews), John Marley (Father Devers), Raymond Bailey (Warden), Alice Backes (Nurse), Gertrude Flynn (Matron), Russell Thorson (San Quentin Sergeant), Dabbs Greer (San Quentin Captain), Stafford Repp (Detective Sergeant), Gavin MacLeod (Lieutenant), Peter Breck (Ben Miranda), Marion Marshall (Rita), 0live Blakeney (Corona Warden), Lorna Thayer (Corona Guard), Evelyn Scott (Personal Effects Clerk), Jack Weston (NCO), Leonard Bell (San Francisco Hood) GeorPe Putnam (Himself), Bill Stout (Newsman), Jason Johnson (Bixel), Rusty Lane (Judge), S. John Launer (San Quentin Officer), Dan Sheridan (Police Broadcaster), Wendell Holmes (Detective).

    Photo Gallery
    Movie Clips
    Complete Credits


    1.Filmmakers Newsletter, 1976
    2. Filmmakers Newsletter, 1976
    3. AFI Seminar, 5/75

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