Robert Wise's I Want to Live! becomes almost unbearably suspenseful as its anti-heroine, Barbara Graham, awaits her execution for murder on death row. Based on the life of a real habitual criminal and starring Susan Hayward, in an Academy Award winning performance, I Want to Live! offers masterful legal drama and moral turmoil. Graham is a prostitute and gambler who lands in prison early in the film for perjury. Upon her release she tries to go straight, but marries an addict who fails to care for the couple's young son. She returns to the life of rigged card games, and is involved with two other criminals. A woman is soon murdered during a robbery, and those men paint Graham as the killer. She is arrested and tried for the crime, and gives fiery commentary to the press throughout the ordeal.
It is important to distinguish one crucial difference between the film and reality: Wise's drama suggests that Graham is innocent of murder, but evidence against the real woman supports the conviction and shows Graham was very involved in the events. The killing is considered first-degree murder under the modern "felony murder rule," in that the death occurred during the commission of another felony. Though I Want to Live! pushes an alternate reality, it is nonetheless effective as a crime drama. Nelson Gidding and Don Mankiewicz write the screenplay, and the film provides very shaky evidence to convict Graham of murder. Sure, she is a low-life who turned to Emmett Perkins (Philip Coolidge) and Jack Santo (Lou Krugman) to help make ends meet, but the film floats the idea that she came aboard this criminal enterprise after those two men robbed and killed an elderly woman. Graham is the nevertheless tried and convicted of murder, and is then shipped to death row without her young son.
Hayward gives a captivating performance, and plays Graham with plenty of sass and wit. Graham did not get here sitting on the sideline, and she stands up to any tough guy or gal. Although some of the woman's outbursts border on overacting, this searing display of sheer nerve and talent is deserving of its Oscar recognition. Important to the plot is journalist Ed Montgomery (Simon Oakland), who vilifies Graham during the trial but then becomes her advocate once the initial media frenzy dies down. I Want to Live! is a curious condemnation of a media that profits from public spectacle and speculation. It is, however, structured like a reenactment of Montgomery's words; in a sense becoming the demon it tries to condemn. Once her initial trial is over, she awaits word on her appeals from death row, and this often comes via an ominously ringing phone. The disembodied word of a potential savior is unsettling and uncomfortable.
The film becomes mercilessly suspenseful as Graham's execution draws near. Hayward goes through a host of emotions, lamenting her character's life choices and befriending her kind female guards. Wise pulls no punches, and never denies that the totality of Graham's choices resulted in this dilemma. The film is not a subtle criticism of the death penalty, but it is an effective one. Observing Graham's moral torment and constant, stop-start acceptance of what is to come is heartbreaking. At one point Graham begs her captors to just get the deed over with. The film's realistic, clinical depiction of the procedures in and around the gas chamber is also deeply affecting. The climax of this film had me grinding my teeth in anticipation. The combination of compelling drama and masterful acting and direction makes I Want to Live! truly memorable.
The black and white 1.85:1/1080p/AVC-encoded image is strong, with excellent delineation and strong detail. The grain is natural and film-like, and shadow detail is excellent. Sharpness and clarity both are good, and print damage is almost non-existent. Other than some slight softness in spots, there are few flaws in this image.
The 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio mono mix is effective, with clear dialogue and a surprisingly weighty score. The track handles the theatrics and occasional bombast with ease, and I never noticed a bit of distortion. English SDH subtitles are included.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
Only 3,000 units of this "Limited Edition Series" Blu-ray were produced. The clear case houses the disc and a booklet with an essay and pictures. Extras include an Isolated Score and Effects Track, in 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. This track includes a commentary segment, in which Mike Matessino, an associate of Robert Wise, provides remarks. You also get the Theatrical Trailer (2:20/HD).
A wonderfully acted and suspenseful moral drama, I Want to Live! is highlighted by a fiery Susan Hayward. She plays a convicted murderer fighting for her life on death row. The story varies somewhat from its real-life origins, but the film is thick with suspense as the execution draws near. Twilight Time's Blu-ray is expectedly excellent. Highly Recommended.