I Want to Live! (1958): Robert Wise’s Drama, Starring Susan Hayward in her Oscar-Winning Performance

In Robert Wise black-and-white drama, “I Want to Live!” Susan Hayward won the Best Actress Oscar for what’s possibly her most famous role. Hayward is cast as the real-life Barbara Graham, a tough, cynical amoral woman, a victim of a broken home, who becomes the consort of criminals and died in the California gas chamber for a murder some people believe she did not commit.

Graham arrives in San Franciscos Tenderloin district, after working every racket and playing every angle from perjury to prostitution. Nonetheless, she sticks to her own code of ethics, which sends her into womens prison for a year for helping out a pal in trouble. After her release, she meets an unsavory pair of gamblers, Emmet Perkins (Philip Coolidge) and John Santo (Lou Krugman), and her job is to steer likely booking suspects into card games, a painless process that seldom ends violently and promises to fatten her bankroll.

Later, she goes straight and marries one of Perkins cohorts, a handsome bartender named Henry Graham (Wesley Lau), with a single weakness dope. A child is born, but within weeks, the marriage is on the rocks. When Graham frantically demands their last $10 for a fix, Barbara flings the bill at his feet and tells him to get out. Desperate and broke, with bill collectors threatening her with legal action, she goes into hiding with Santo and Perkins.

Rather ominously, the San Francisco police tail Barbara on her way to the hideout. Suddenly, as the three stand in the dark room talking, floodlights wash the walls and the police loudspeaker instructs them to come out. Defiantly waving her sons toy tiger, she swaggers into the glare of the lights and executes a bump for the benefit of the crowd

In a brutal investigation session at a San Francisco precinct, it develops that Barbara, Santo and Perkins have been picked up on a murder rap. The police are convinced that the trio and Burce King (James Philbrook) brutally murdered an elderly widow, Mabel Monahan, in her home a few weeks earlier. Not realizing the seriousness of the charge, Barbara goads the police and refuses to answer their questions, which deepens the case against her.

Bruce King turns states evidence and names Barbara as the actual killer. Her own alibi can only be verified by her son (who’s six months old) and her dope-addicted husband. In despair, she agrees to buy an alibi from a “friend” of her cellmate, but the “friend” insists she admit her guilt to him before he agrees to go ahead with the deal. Seeing no other out, Barbara concedes that she was present at the Monahan house.

As the trial begins, the silence of Perkins and Santo continues to implicate Barbara, who is relying entirely on her purchase alibi. But suddenly, the alibi appears on the stand, a witness for the prosecution!

Her life goes from worse to worst, when she hears on the radio that three couples have offered to adopt her son (the baby comes to jail for visits twice), but her wish is that he stays with his grandmother. She instructs her lawyer: Dont beg for my life.

It turns out the alibi was an elaborate police trick and the “friend” was a police officer. The policeman testifies that Barbara admitted to him that she was at the scene of the crime. She finally gets a chance to defend herself on the stand, but the prosecutor rips her story apart and focuses his questions on her sordid past. After five and a half hours of deliberation, the jury returns the verdict”guilty as charged”–with no recommendation for clemency, which means she must die in the gas chamber.

While at the womens prison at Corona, more and more people are beginning to believe that Barbara is innocent, pushing for legal maneuvers to save her. Interviewed by the renowned psychologist, Carl Palmberg (Theodore Bikel), she is diagnosed as amoral and antisocial, even if Palmberg is convinced that she did not kill. The psychologist rallies the forces to her defense, and in due time, even the reporter Ed Montgomery (Simon Oakland), who led the smear campaign against her, changes his mind and joins the campaign to free her.

In the end, all the appeals for clemency and legal maneuvers fail and the execution date is set for the third and final time. Removed to the death house at San Quentin, Barbara is executed at the age of 32.

Oscar Nominations: 6

Director: Robert Wise Screenplay (Adapted): Nelson Gidding and Don Mankiewicz Actress: Susan Hayward Cinematography (b/w): Lionel Lindon Sound: Gordon E. Sawyer Film Editing: William Hornbeck

Oscar Awards: 1


Oscar Context

Susan Hayward won the Oscar at her fifth nomination in a contest that included actresses who have also been nominated many times before, such as Deborah Kerr, nominated for the fifth time for “Separate Tables,” and Rosalind Russell for “Auntie Mame,” her fourth and last nomination.

In 1958, the musical “Gigi” swept most of the Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director for Vincente Minnelli, scripter Alan Jay Lerner, editor Adriennne Fazan.

The Cinematography Oscar went to Sam Leavitt for Stanley Kramer’s interracial drama, “The Defiant Ones.” The movie musical “South Pacific” won the Sound award.

CreditsI Want to Live

United Artists (Figaro Inc.)