Released by: Twilight Time
Released on: November 15, 2017
Directed by: Robert Wise
Cast: Susan Hayward, Simon Oakland, Virginia Vincent, Theodore Bikel, Wesley Lau, Philip Coolidge, Lou Krugman, James Philbrook, Bartlett Robinson, Gage Clarke
In March 1953, Barbara Graham approached the home of wealthy 64-year-old widow Mabel Monohan, knocked on the door, and, when Mabel answered, asked to use the phone. As Mabel opened the door to allow Graham in, three men—including Jack Santo and Graham’s extramarital lover, Emmett Perkins—barged in. The group attempted to rob Monohan, but she refused to tell them where her money and valuables were located. After pistol whipping her, they smothered her with a pillow. When some of the men were later arrested, one of them turned state’s evidence against the others, giving up Graham along the way. She was arrested and charged, and while in jail she attempted to hire an alibi for the time of the murder. The ruse didn’t work (the man who agreed to provide her alibi was in actuality an undercover police officer), and Graham was convicted of murder and sentenced to die in California’s gas chamber.
Robert Wise, who had by this time established himself as a major director in Hollywood (his career began under the tutelage of Orson Welles and continued with Val Lewton, for whom he directed his first feature, The Curse of the Cat People, in 1944), was brought in to helm a film adaptation of Graham’s story. He insisted that the original script be thrown out and a new one written. While remarkably faithful in many particulars, the final script did attempt to sow some doubt as to the veracity of Graham’s guilt, despite overwhelming evidence against her in real life. Regardless, the film’s approach to the subject matter was decidedly anti-death penalty, portraying “Bloody Babs” as unlikable and yet sympathetic, trashy and yet all too human. To prepare himself for the filming, Wise attended a real-life execution, an event he found profoundly disturbing and which had an impact on his presentation of the material.
Susan Hayward, who had starred in a string of critical and commercial successes and been nominated for Best Actress Academy Award for four of her previous roles, fought for the role of Barbara Graham. Sadly, she was successful. In her 40s when I Want to Live was shot, Hayward was too old for the part of a young woman whose petty crimes began at a young age and whose life ended in her early 30s. That in itself might be forgivable, but her performance, which is less a portrayal of human emotion than a back-and-forth jump between woodenness and histrionics, is less so. It doesn't help that the screenplay deliberately omits any portrayal (even in flashbacks) of the actual crime for which Graham was executed, apparently believing that the viewer will deduce her guilt or innocence from the preachy melodrama that follows. (Hint: You won't.)
On the upside, there's some fun to be had playing "Spot the TV Actor," with Raymond Bailey (banker Milburn Drysdale from "The Beverly Hillbillies") and Simon Oakland (Darren McGavin's overwrought editor in ABC's "The Night Stalker"), among others, popping up in parts large and small.
The film made millions at the box office and was a smash with critics. It also (and inexplicably) gave Hayward her first Academy Award win.
Twilight Time has released I Want to Live on Blu-ray with an MPEG-4 AVC encode in 1080 high definition, utilizing the film’s original 1.66:1 theatrical aspect ratio. The image is sharp and clear, once again proving why Blu-ray is the only way to watch black and white films. The transfer is a major improvement over the previous DVD release, and every line of resolution shows, whether it’s in clothing or trees, furniture or faces. There’s hardly a scene that isn’t crystal clear. Depth is gorgeous, and there are innumerable shades of gray. The image is never washed out, and there’s no print damage to speak of, hardly even a speckle. Mild grain appears natural and supportive of the rich textures, and there’s no visible evidence that software has been used to stabilize the grain field or artificially enhance the detail. Clearly the best elements were used, the transfer was top notch, and the love put into that transfer shows in virtually every frame. There are a couple of scenes that appear a little softer than the rest of the picture, but they’re few and far between and shouldn’t impact viewers’ appreciation of what is otherwise a superlative release in terms of video quality.
Purists will appreciate that Twilight Time has opted for a DTS-HD Master Audio Mono presentation for the film’s sound. The award-winning score is beautifully clear and robust, and while dialogue is (occasionally) difficult to understand (mostly when sounds get loud), the jazzy score emanating from the screen is a pleasure to hear. The presentation is defect free, and thankfully Twilight Time has seen fit to provide the score on its own superior DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track. There are also English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired. The isolated score is unusual in that it contains an audio commentary ‘segment’ from Robert Wise associate Mike Matessino, which begins about half an hour into the track and lasts for a total of about 20 minutes. Matessino focuses mostly on the score but does touch on a number of other subjects, including the real case behind the film, Wise’s impetus in making the picture, and how Susan Hayward got involved.
Film historian Julie Kirgo supplies liner notes in an 8-page booklet. As usual, she delves into the film’s background, its star, its director, and its script. And while her writing is as beautiful and eloquent as ever, it’s when she veers off the expected course (such as to discuss an unfortunate incident in producer Walter Wanger’s life or to reveal that the real-life evidence really did indicate Barbara Graham’s guilt) that her notes really come alive.
The only other extra is a two-minute trailer, also presented in hi-def.
The Final Word:
I Want to Live is an unintentional hoot, a hilarious soap opera tragedy with an overwrought performance from Susan Hayward that is often engaging for all the wrong reasons. Despite its lengthy running time, it moves quickly to its climax, and, thanks to a superb transfer, looks fantastic all the while. The jazz score likewise sounds terrific, particularly in the isolated track, which it shares with an all-too-brief audio commentary.
I Want to Live is a limited release of 3,000 units and is region free.
Christopher Workman is a freelance writer, film critic, and co-author (with Troy Howarth) of the Tome of Terror horror film review series. Horror Films of the Silent Era and Horror Films of the 1930s are currently available, with Horror Films of the 1940s due out later this year.
Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!