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I Want to Live!

MGM // Unrated // May 7, 2002
List Price: $14.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Holly E. Ordway | posted May 19, 2002 | E-mail the Author
I tend to be leery of movies "based on a true story"; rarely do they manage to be as well-crafted as films that can play with their material more freely. I Want to Live! is a case in point. Real life is complicated, tangled, and messy; in a real-life situation, it's hard to separate out who would be the "main characters" versus the "supporting players"... not to mention trying to figure out what people would need to be trimmed from the script entirely. I Want to Live! arguably does a good job of conveying the muddle of a real-life situation, but it doesn't make for a particularly effective two-hour film.

The film centers around the figure of Barbara Graham (Susan Hayward), a petty criminal who gets over her head in the crime scene and suffers the consequences. I would imagine that the viewers are intended to be interested in Barbara's fate, but the effect fizzles for a variety of reasons.

As I Want to Live! opens, we are launched into a frenzied series of events, one scene coming after the other with no let-up. There's no narrative connection provided between the scenes, and cause-and-effect is thrown out the window: Barbara is apparently arrested after the first scene, but shows up in the second scene as if nothing had happened. It doesn't help that the movie assumes that the viewer will pick up most of what's going on from small cues that are tossed out along the way, when these cues are ambiguous at best to viewers forty years later. As one example out of many, Barbara is having an assignation with a man in a hotel room... but why are the police busting in? Apparently it's a crime to "transport a woman across state lines for immoral purposes" (talk about objectification of women!).

On top of the confusing narrative structure, there are so many secondary characters thrown into the mix that it's impossible to keep track of faces, let alone names. Within half an hour, I was in character overload; between the girlfriends, boyfriends, fellow criminals, random passers-by, and police officers, I had no idea who was relevant to the story. This kind of confusion isn't something that's lightly recovered from, either: I Want to Live! never settles down on a firm central core of characters other than Barbara herself. All of these people may in fact represent individuals from the real life of Barbara Graham, but as I said at the beginning of this review, unedited real life rarely makes for a great film.

The film also commits the error of assuming that the viewer cares about the characters, as opposed to making the viewer care. Susan Hayward certainly does make Barbara stand out as a cheerful, reckless figure amongst the faceless mass of secondary characters, but her energy alone can't make the character into someone that we care about. For that, we'd need some time to see the character develop... which is precisely what we don't get. After a frenzied depiction of Barbara as a quasi-prostitute and criminal, we see an apparent moral turn-around as she decides to settle down and have a family. With absolutely no sense of her character to begin with, let alone any changes in her character, this turn of events has no particular impact. Similarly, when things turn sour, it's impossible to care: at this point, my opinion of the characters was that they were all a bunch of unpleasant, loud-mouthed drug addicts with no redeeming qualities about them. The question that I Want to Live! fails to answer satisfactorily is "why should I continue watching this film?" or, having watched it to the end, "why should I have bothered with this film at all?"

Probably the most interesting thing about I Want to Live! is the camera work, which is remarkably modern, with moving shots and interesting angles that give a dynamism to the image that's unlike the fairly theatrical style of other movies of the era. On the basis of this faint positive element, I Want to Live! may have some features of interest to enthusiasts of 1950s film.


MGM's release of I Want to Live! presents the film in a non-anamorphic widescreen version that preserves the film's original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The image isn't as sharp as it could have been, though it's not bad. Contrast is a bit weak, which is a real problem for a black-and-white movie. Many of the scenes take place at night or in dark rooms, and between the dim lighting and the not-so-great contrast, a fair amount of detail is lost. A few print flaws pop up here and there, but otherwise, the print is clean, with a minimal amount of noise.


It doesn't take much for a dialogue-based movie to have an adequate soundtrack, but unfortunately I Want to Live! falls flat here. The Dolby 2.0 mono track is dreadfully inadequate. The music score is overly loud and overpowers the dialogue on many occasions. Even when there's no music playing, the dialogue is muffled; many words or whole lines fade into the background, making it difficult to follow the conversations.


The DVD of I Want to Live! is almost bare-bones, featuring only a trailer for the film.

Final thoughts

If you're familiar with the real-life events that I Want to Live! is based on, you may find the film to be worth seeing; taken on its own as a movie, though, it doesn't hold its own. I'd recommend passing on this one completely.
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