I Want To Live!

I Want To Live! (1958) dir. Robert Wise writ. Nelson Gidding and Don Mankiewicz (based on the San Francisco Examiner articles of Edward Montgomery) cine. Lionel Linden music scored by John Mandel played by Gerry Mulligan, Shelly Manne, Art Farmer, Bud Shank, Red Mitchell et. al. star. Susan Hayward (Barbara Graham), Simon Oakland (Ed Montgomery), Virginia Vincent (Peg), Wesley Lau (Henry Graham), Philip Coolidge (Emmett Perkins), Lou Krugman (Santos), Theodore Bickel (Carl Palmberg)

Lawrence Russell

Got a problem with executing women? Or capital punishment in general? The first thing you see is an insert of a signed affidavit by Ed Montgomery telling us that this is a true story based on his articles for The San Francisco Examiner and the correspondence of the victim, Barbara Graham... and as far as this film is concerned, there's no doubt that the good-time party girl and part-time prostitute "Bonnie" Graham is a victim. Whether or not she had a hand in the murder of an elderly San Francisco robbery victim Mrs. Mabel Monaghan is left ambiguous, part of the raw deal that life has dealt her from the start.

A graduate of the Ventura Reform School for Women -- as was her mother -- Bonnie's a west coast drifter on the edge of the Beat scene who uses her good looks to get by. A habitue of jazz clubs, lounges, and the street hustle of Frisco, and L.A., her actions are always an imaginary roll of the dice, a post-war boogie of sensual opportunity and criminal desire where Chance is the arbiter and Fate is the Hunter. Her victimization is guilt-by-association. She's a round peg in a square world, a hipster chick without the literature from Jack Kerouac's The Subterraneans. A slut by any measure, she kites checks, she bounces checks, she bears false witness on behalf of robbers, and her third marriage is to a junkie. Guilty? You bet. Proven? Who cares -- gas her.

Bloody Babs, the Tiger Woman

Susan Hayward received an Academy Award for her performance and rightly so. The character resists idealization, is dualistic, hard-boiled just like the tough men in the movies of her generation. She has the body to make them grovel and the mouth to cut them down. Attitude, style and... the soul of a sensitive woman. She has a child whom she loves, carries a toy tiger to remind her of him. In the seminal scene of her final arrest (about mid-movie), she emerges from the hideout behind the machine shop into the police spotlight and an audience of cops, journalists and street rabble. She strikes a defiant pose on the sidewalk... and as the flashbulbs pop, thrusts the toy tiger at the cameras, snarls at the cops, society, the pallbearers of her fate.

Next day the newspaper headline above the photo reads: "Bloody Babs, the Tiger Woman". After this, the film is essentially a docu-drama, chaining through her entrapment by a prison stoolie, her trial, her incarceration and eventual execution by cyanide gas at the San Quentin penitentiary.

The director Robert Wise first received attention as the editor of Citizen Kane. Therefore the progressive cinematic style of the film's opening sequences should come as no surprise -- alternating tilt shots of the jazzers on stage that magnify the vertiginous ambience in which the patrons drink and smoke their way to ecstasy in the lower depths of the New Frisco Club. The montage continues: two men share a joint at the fire door, Gerry Mulligan blows hard on his sax, a fat narc descends the stairs, a man flees with his chick...

Cut To: the neon of an anonymous hotel. The "H" is isolated, an icon outside the window of a woman sharing a post-coital cigarette with a man, their nakedness hidden in the shadows. Hell? Could be. The woman is Barbara Graham.

You see her as a wild girl at a party with some sailors, doing the jungle shimmy to the bongos. You see her passing bad checks, you see her pick up a drunken Texan, retire him to a fixed poker game, you see her acting as a false alibi. She tries to reform, gets married, has a kid, but her husband's a junkie... life is hell, so they split and she drifts back into her hustle with a small time hood with a library and a record collection. This is Emmett Perkins, one of many tantalizing yet unrealized characters. What exactly is their relationship? He seems to cut her a lot of slack... but when the hour of their reckoning comes, he doesn't cut her any slack at all.

Perkins: Where are you from?

Barbara: Frisco.

Perkins: Occupation?

Barbara: The best I can.

"The best I can" really sums up Barbara Graham's determination and moxy. Yes, she's a liar, yes she sells herself, but within the game she has loyalty and integrity. She spurns one of the hoods, "a self-styled steeplejack " called Bruce King, who is lifted at the border trying to cross into Mexico and cuts a deal with the cops. It's his accusation that leads to the arrests of Perkins, Santos, and Barbara Graham.

"Lousy, hop-headed slut!"

It's an odd world, one in which the police willingly believe the testimony of a criminal in order to convict another, or forgive one murderess in order to execute another. Conflict-of-interest has no meaning in the game of justice and retribution.

The film is a window into the west coast sub-culture of the fifties as well as being an indictment of capital punishment. The preparations for the execution are clinical, a para-documentary of objective murder. Barbara tries to retain her dignity by refusing the institutional charity of the final gourmet meal as the executioners prepare the sulfuric acid detonator for the cyanide eggs like barmen mixing cocktails in the death lounge adjacent to her cell. It's grim, a piece of terminal theatre that makes casual murder look humane.

While it's a powerful piece of political drama which plays to our sympathies by implicating us vicariously in our vices, it's also a sentimental journey that lies by omission in favor of propaganda. You never see the crime enacted -- why? You never hear the testimonies of the co-accused -- why? The question of guilt or innocence is left in doubt so that the higher agenda can be conveyed, that is, the immorality of capital punishment and the barbarity of executing women.

In this sense the film is proto-feminist, as it suggests that women are the victims of men... or at the least feminine consciousness couldn't be a consort to evil. Unfortunately the narrative is cluttered with many incidental characters and unresolved situations as the action propels itself to the grand finale in the gas chamber, so it's difficult to separate personality from plot. Some scenes are unworthy of inclusion while others are simply missing.

At exactly the same time in England -- 1955 -- Ruth Ellis was hanged for shooting her racing driver lover. She was the last woman to be executed for murder in the U.K. and while her guilt was never in doubt, the similarities between her and Barbara Graham are remarkable. Both are divorcees, single mothers, quasi-prostitutes, barflies pursued by brutish, substance-abusing males, victims of passion and personal histories from which they are unable to escape.

Dance With A Stranger (1985) is the brilliant film of the Ruth Ellis story and not surprisingly also has a jazz score as a soundtrack. And both movies end with the reading of a letter, a sort of post-mortem of the condemned.

I Want To Live! is as much an attack against the puritan consciousness of the times as much as it is about injustice and misogyny. Today women walk routinely from homicides and mutilations... but it wasn't always so.

©LR 24/6/99


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