dir. Robert Wise
"I'm the little ball bouncing around a roulette wheel. Everyone betting me to land where it's gonna do them the most good: votes for the DA, circulation for the newspapers, promotions for the cops."
Women in prison -- do there exist three more salacious words in the English language? No one knows for sure, but one thing is certain; there exists no sexier a movie genre. Staples of late night skinemax and sleazy drive-ins, these movies present a vivid male fantasy world full of nudity, breasts, and naked women. In these flicks, dangerous female inmates must contend with bull dyke prison guards, catfights, and raging libidos that force them to engage in copious amounts of lesbian sex. This genre presents an interesting conundrum: in this male fantasy world, women are simultaneously dom/sub and men are nowhere to be found. One wonders the myriad psychological implications of the male desire for these movies. Here, women are both contained and in charge. Perhaps, beneath the male construct of women as subordinates there is a subconscious desire to see them in a dominant position where men have become so pointless as to become nonexistent. Either that or we just like to see tits on the screen. Regardless, Robert Wise's I Want to Live! is not one of these movies.
I Want to Live! belongs to a large group of message pictures produced by Hollywood in the forties and fifties. During this period, many producers sought to expose and examine various problems that most of square America would rather keep buried. As a result, many of these pictures are bogged down by a laughable, if earnest, preachy tone. Although not without camp value, I Want to Live! does lack some of the heavy-handed moralizing of pictures by such people as Dore Schary or Stanley Kramer. This is due in large part to the work of director Robert Wise. Wise brings a hard edged, realistic sensibility to the subject matter. Although generally more well-known for lavish musicals such as West Side Story and The Sound of Music, Wise had a long illustrious career excelling in many genres, particularly crime thrillers. It was his background in thrillers that gave him the know how to deal with this film's subject matter: crime, imprisonment, and the death penalty. Of all his assets as a filmmaker perhaps none was more important to this picture's success than his attention to detail. Aside from giving this movie a realistic feel, it also resulted in one of the most harrowing climaxes that Wise ever filmed.
I Want To Live! opens with a scene as wild and inventive as the Johnny Mandel jazz score that accompanies it. We are thrust into a boozy, scandalous night club in which everything is shot at oblique angles. Susan Hayward, playing real life criminal Barbara Graham, is out with a john in this seedy club. When she brings her client to a motel, Graham runs afoul of the law. It is obvious, though, that she is all too familiar with johnny law. Graham exhibits the disregard for morals and seen-it-all attitude of a Jerri Blank. Doing hard time in the slammer ain't no thing for this tough broad. Indeed, it is soon clear that Graham's greatest asset, apart from her ability to bed copious numbers of men, is her smart-assery. Never without a clever quip, she is quick to put in their places any folks looking to get the better of her.
As the years pass by, however, Graham develops a deep desire to reform her ways. When she informs her gangster boss that she plans to quit in order to get married, he tells her that she is making a mistake and then knocks over a card castle, which we see in close up. Cut to a baby crying as the now domesticated Graham struggles with poverty and a junkie husband. It isn't long before she comes crawling back to her former boss, if only to earn money so that her baby won't starve. When the cops arrest members of this group for the murder of a 61 year old crippled widow, she gets lumped in with them and thrown in jail. Things only get worse from there.
Because the newspapers are hungry for a juicy story, they paint her guilt in bright red colors across the headlines. The jury has no choice but to convict her. [SPOILER ALERT] After Graham is put on death row, Wise serves up an intense, suspenseful series of scenes. Graham eventually falls into the good graces of a sympathetic lawyer who struggles to retry her case. On the day that she is to be executed, the Governor grants her a stay of execution, but her lawyer is unsuccessful in appealing her case. Her fate sealed, she walks to the gas chamber. A stickler for detail, Wise shows every excruciatingly painful detail involved in putting someone to death. Very few scenes are this viscerally gut-wrenching. Knowing that the real life Graham may have been innocent, adds an even greater weight to Wise's work. Not knowing the particulars of Graham's case, I wasn't sure how this movie was going to end. One gets the feeling that it may have been a struggle for Wise to keep such a dark ending. Although the real life Graham was executed, it wouldn't be surprising if a contemporary audience found the film's ending a shock, given Hollywood's artistic license and propensity for cheery resolutions.
[SPOILERS CONTINUED] As harrowing as the execution is, a far more subtle scene stands out for its misanthropy. During all the hubub surrounding Graham's execution day, a newspaper office has two headlines ready: one declaring Graham's big break and the other announcing her execution. Aside from being a clever homage to Citizen Kane, the movie that Wise's big break (as an editor), this scene simultaneously lays bare the inhumanity of the press and the cheap commodification of modern human existence. Wise and Hayward went to painstaking detail in examining the complex life of this troubled woman. Yet, the totality of Graham's existence is laid out in the splashy headline of a local periodical. She is no longer a person but a means to sell a newspaper. Another result of the humanity brought to this character, is the laying bare of the dangerous consequences of a flawed system. It is because of cases such as this, that it seems Wise probably saw this movie as means of facilitating a re-examination of capital punishment. Although the death penalty was halted for a brief period in the seventies, a recent Supreme Court ruling negates any chance of this happening again. [END SPOILER ALERT]
It should be noted that no matter how much of a complex character we are presented with in this movie, the real Graham was much less likable, and most likely present at the crime in question (if not fully guilty). Regardless, the Graham in this movie was miles from the law abiding characters generally put at the front and center of the "wrongfully accused" genre. She's guilty of everything but murder. In this way she is far more believable than, say, the never-hurt-a-fly character Henry Fonda plays in The Wrong Man (a thoroughly awesome movie, by the way). Although not all of us engage in prostitution and small cons, we are better able to relate to this character because of her flaws. Wise seems to be saying that in this world, we're all guilty and to put anyone to death is a blatant form of hypocrisy. More than anything, the moral ambiguity of both the main character and the plot are signs of a changing Hollywood. The small gains in artistic freedom that allowed Wise to make this movie would eventually erupt into the anything goes artistic renaissance of sixties and seventies Hollywood.
It should be noted that this review represents a first for me; I have never before reviewed an Academy Award winning picture (Susan Hayward won the Oscar for her role). I feel a little dirty now. No need to worry folks. I don't plan to make a habit of this. Some of my next reviews will include Prime Cut, a movie in which Lee Marvin rescues a young Sissy Spacek from the white slave trade; and Emperor of the North, a flick in which Lee Marvin and Keith Carradine vie for title of "King of the Railway Hobos". Let the trash begin.