Susan Hayward, “the Brooklyn Bernhardt,” seemed to arrive at her career peak playing singer-actress Lillian Roth in I’ll Cry Tomorrow (Daniel Mann, 1955), for which she was named best actress at Cannes, but she surpassed this celebrated work as another actual personage, Barbara Graham, whom the state of California executed for murder in 1955, in I Want to Live!, for which she won (after four previous nominations) the Oscar, the New York Film Critics Circle’s prize, the Golden Globe, the Laurel Award, and best actress at the Mar del Plata Film Festival. The film argues Graham’s innocence, and Hayward’s spirited, incandescent performance accounts for much of the film’s riveting nature. However, its cumulative indictment of a biased and imprecise system of justice also contributes to the film’s powerful effect.
Graham, a “good-time girl,” is shown arrested for prostitution and convicted and imprisoned on a charge of perjury, having provided a false alibi for two criminals, two “nice guys,” as she puts it—a crime that, ironically, establishes her loyalty and decency as well as her recklessness. “Nice guys,” in Barbara Graham’s book, are those who are friendly and treat her decently, that is to say, do not slap her or beat her up. The film, unfortunately, provides little motive for her prostitution; the implicit one, of course, is economic, but Hayward, gorgeous and (in the accepted mainstream Hollywood style of the day) almost perpetually glamorous, cannot help also implying that Graham might have attained more wholesome employment. (Hayward is not the sort of actress who loses herself in a part, and Graham is more or less transformed into Susan Hayward in order for the film to make its case.*) Nevertheless, Graham forsakes her loose lifestyle once she marries for the fourth time and “settles down.” The couple have a child. Unfortunately, Graham’s spouse, a drug addict, abandons her, and, despite her parole restrictions, this brings her into renewed contact with two hoodlums from her past.
In 1953 these men rob and bludgeon to death a disabled widow in her Burbank home. The mastermind of the two plots to pin the actual killing on Graham, who was home with her spouse and baby at the time. His thinking is this: the state would never execute the mother of a young child and, therefore, if Graham is characterized as the one who committed the murder, the state also would not execute those who merely participated in the robbery with her. This man’s accomplice is a bully whom Graham once turned down for a date. When Graham inadvertently leads the police to the men’s hideout, her fate is sealed. The two men conspire to make Graham their accomplice and to pin the actual killing on her. Not a shred of physical evidence exists to tie Graham to the crime scene.
Graham’s court-appointed attorney is incompetent in at least two ways. He tells her repeatedly that her legitimate alibi is inadequate to save her life. As a result, desperate, Graham walks into a trap for the purposes of establishing a different alibi, wherein the man providing it, unbeknownst to her, is an undercover police officer. In a Baglioni moment, when the fraudulent alibi is exposed in court, the lawyer turns against his client for having lied to him, although he himself is the one who pressured her into the lie. (Baglioni: See Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “Rappaccini’s Daughter.”) Thereafter, he neither trusts his client nor believes in her innocence. During the trial, one of her co-defendants provides eyewitness testimony of Graham’s having beaten the victim to death using her right hand. It turns out that Graham is left-handed, but the discrepancy passes both Graham’s attorney’s notice and her own. In the American system of justice, where procedure takes precedence over justice and the actual determination of guilt or innocence, Graham has no recourse to an appeal of the jury’s guilty verdict and the death sentence imposed on her on the grounds of the co-defendant’s likely perjured testimony because it could have been pointed out at trial that Graham wasn’t right-handed. Only it wasn’t; so Graham must suffer the fatal consequences of dull legal representation. A psychiatric evaluation reveals, further, that she is incapable of such a violent crime, but this proves equally unhelpful. Nor does a series of articles, homing in on her likely innocence, by Edmund Montgomery, of the San Francisco Chronicle, accomplish anything more than possibly changing public opinion. Eventually, after a grueling series of appeals and stays of execution, Barbara Graham is gassed to death by the state.
The script by Nelson Gidding and Don M. Mankiewicz is sharp; Robert Wise’s direction, less so. Wise, the hack who would direct The Sound of Music (1965) and most of West Side Story (1961), holds many shots way too long and strenuously, and misguidedly, applies a Wellesian technique—this, from the man who launched his directorial career at Orson Welles’s expense in the early 1940s. The cutter of Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Wise is witheringly exposed by actress Joan Fontaine in her autobiography, No Bed of Roses; apparently the fool timed scenes with a stopwatch! (The film in question is 1957’s Until They Sail—the one Wise made just prior to making I Want to Live!) One constantly feels while watching I Want to Live! that Wise is struggling through his direction of it, more focused on the film’s message against capital punishment than on the more pressing matters of achieving formal integrity and expressiveness. On the other hand, Wise succeeds admirably in one regard. The film is divided into two parts, the first focusing on Graham’s life, including the murder trial, and the second focusing on her life in prison while she awaits execution, and then the execution itself, whose technical details are given, quite effectively, near documentary attention. Surely it is not the most persuasive argument against capital punishment that innocent persons are sometimes put to death. Yet the first part of the film could have been used as a set-up for just such a sentimental appeal. Rather, we no longer think about Graham’s guilt or innocence as we watch the film’s devastating second half. That seems secondary to the more salient issue: the state’s unbridled power in putting to death one of its citizens. Both the scenarists and Wise deserve credit for this outcome.
It is the Earl Warren U.S. Supreme Court that refused to save the life of Barbara Graham, despite her innocence of the crime for which she was convicted. More recently, the Burger and Rehnquist courts, on the issue of executions, have reversed the Warren court’s distribution of priorities, which favored the civil liberties of defendants over the efficiency, hence integrity, of the legal apparatus and procedure; hence, it is useless to say that, today, Barbara Graham would have been given a fairer shake. The opposite is true, unless the actions of the police would weigh in as impermissible. The stunt that the police pulled (I assume in concert with the district attorney’s office prosecuting the case, although the film never clarifies this) in entrapping Graham in a false alibi is the kind of thing, when played out in court, that ensures a jury’s condemnation and conviction of a defendant. One would think that an appeal would be won on this basis, at least remanding the defendant to a new trial, but one also would think that a left-handed person would never be executed for a right-handed murder. In the U.S., perhaps the watch phrase should be: Think again.
As nearly all of the civilized world has come to see, capital punishment is barbaric. Still, the fact of the matter is that Graham should not even have been incarcerated for murder, much less executed by the state. It is always a puzzlement to me when someone representing the law says on television, after someone wrongly imprisoned for years, even decades, is finally exonerated and released, “Well, the system worked.” It is horrific that someone should be put to death for a crime that he or she did not commit, but it is quite bad enough that such a soul should be merely stripped of his or her liberty. Why don’t more people in this country see this?
Its message is potent, but I Want to Live! lives for Hayward, the vibrant humanity of whose performance is unassailable. Hayward’s perhaps finest moment comes when, before being executed, Graham gives away her son’s toy tiger, explaining, “He has probably forgotten about it by now,” with the implied poignancy that Graham knows that he has also probably forgotten her by now, too. Hayward’s Graham is one of those remarkable instances when acting is nuanced and restrained and yet engagingly full-blown at the same time. Too, Lionel Lindon’s black-and-white cinematography shows off Hayward to emotionally spectacular advantage. If there is one criticism that can fairly be leveled at Hayward’s acting it is this: her Graham sometimes behaves inexplicably naively, given the immense amount of intelligence that the actress has invested in the character. On balance, Hayward falls just short of the achievement of Ginger Rogers in the thematically similar Roxie Hart (1942). Indeed, written by Nunnally Johnson and directed by “Wild Bill” Wellman, Roxie Hart provides a more complete and precise analysis of American justice than I Want to Live!—as does Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959).
* Hayward’s headline-making notoriety as a result of her recent messy divorce from actor Jess Barker helped blur the distinction between actress and character. Barker, whose career Hayward’s overshadowed, used to strip his wife and spank her—one of the lurid details of the couple’s homelife that helped cost Hayward the Oscar for I’ll Cry Tomorrow and, ironically, helped ensure her winning the trophy, at a safe, dignified distance of three years, for I Want to Live!
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