I Want to Live! (1958) Classic Movie Review 92

I Want to Live! (1958)

I Want to Live! (1958)

It's Mrs. Graham's tough luck to be young, attractive, belligerent, immoral... and guilty as hell.


Today’s movie is I Want to Live! (1958). It is a gritty film noir that focuses almost exclusively on the female part of the story. The main character can be described as a femme fatale as she only brought down herself. This movie is driven by a lively jazz soundtrack. It highlights the differences between sweet jazz and legitimate or swing jazz. The lighting for mood is well done and should be watched carefully. Susan Hayward gives a masterful performance and won a much deserved best actress Oscar.


Susan Hayward played the often jailed Barbara Graham. Hayward was born in New York City in 1917. Hayward was on her way to a career as a secretary but she ended up modeling instead. The search for an actress to play Scarlet in Gone with the Wind (1939) brought her to Hollywood. Of course, she didn’t get that role but she began getting bit parts with the first being Hollywood Hotel (1937).

Hayward’s bit roles were followed by larger roles in Beau Geste (1939), Among the Living (1941), and finally DeMille’s Reap the Wild Wind (1942). In 1947, Hayward received the first of five Oscar nominations for her work in The Story of a Woman (1947). She was nominated again for My Foolish Heart (1949).  Her third nomination came for With a Song in My Heart (1952). She did a great job of playing President Jackson’s much-slandered wife in The President’s Lady (1953). Hayward’s fourth nomination came for I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955). Her fifth nomination came for her role in I Want to Live! (1958) and this time she won the best actress Oscar.

After her Oscar win, she made about one movie a year with the last one being The Revengers (1972). Sadly Hayward died of cancer at the age of 57 in 1975.

I Want to Live! (1958)

I Want to Live! (1958)

Simon Oakland played the role of newspaperman Edward S. ‘Ed’ Montgomery. Born in New York City in 1915, Oakland did not begin acting until the late 1940s. His first movie role was in I Want to Live! (1958). He was known for playing tough guys in movies like Psycho (1960), a cop in West Side Story (1961), a real rice bowl breaker in The Sand Pebbles (1966) with cool guy Steve McQueen, and Tony Roma (1967).

Theodore Bikel played psychologist Carl G.G. Palmberg. Bikel was born in Austria in 1924. Bikel’s family fled the Nazis to Palestine. He started acting in Israel. He went to study at the London Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1945. In 1954, he moved to the US, becoming a citizen in 1961.

Bikel was a very good linguist and played various ethnic roles. For example, he played a German in The African Queen (1951) and in The Enemy Below (1957), a Southern sheriff in The Defiant Ones (1958) and received an Oscar nomination, a Russian in The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966), a French General in The Pride and the Passion (1957), and a Hungarian in My Fair Lady (1964).

He was active on stage and in television. On “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, he played the Russian-born adoptive father of Klingon Worf. He was also a musician and composer. He died in 2015, at the age of 91.

John Marley played a small role of Father Devers. Marley was covered in Episode 71 – Cat Ballou (1965).

There were a lot of good actors in this film that had only small parts. I don’t want to skip them completely but I don’t have time to do a bio on each so I will just give them a quick mention. Dabbs Greer played the role of the main prisoner executioner. Greer had over 300 movies but I remember him as the reverend on “Little House on the Prairie” 1984. Gavin MacLeod played a very mean detective during the interrogation of Barbara. Stafford Repp played the role of a police sergeant. He is best known for play Chief O’Hara in “Batman” 1966-1968. You know, the good one with Adam West. Alice Backes played the role of another Barbara, the San Quentin Nurse. Backes had almost 100 roles, most of which were on television. However, she had a small role in one of my favorite bad movies, The Glory Guys (1965). The Warden at San Quinton was played by Raymond Bailey who we all know as Mr. Drysdale in “The Beverly Hillbillies” 1962-1971. Peter Breck played the role of undercover detective. Breck is known as Jared Barkley, the tough son from “The Big Valley” 1965-1969.  Bartlett Robinson played District Attorney Milton. Philip Coolidge played the role of bad guy Emmitt Perkins. Coolidge is known for North by Northwest (1959) and Inherit the Wind (1960). Lou Krugman played criminal Santo and James Philbrook played criminal and stool pigeon King. One of my favorites Len Lesser had a small bit as a photography tech. Lesser was the bounty hunter that tried to capture Josey Wales in The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). He was also Uncle Leo on “Seinfeld” 1991-1998.


This movie is based on a true story.

This movie beings at a swinging jazz club. The real stuff. Hep cats are in the back smoking refer and young women are hanging with older men, prostitutes.

Barbara Graham (Susan Hayward) pops out of a bed leaving a man behind and lights ups. Another man leads a flatfoot down the corridor to the room. The cop plans on charging the couple with the Mann Act, transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes. But Barbara says she will take a wrap for prostitution freeing the man.

Later in San Diego Barbara and Peg (Virginia Vincent) are having a great time entertaining all of the military guys. A couple of their old running pals Mac and Stewie show up at the party. They have robbed a deli and need an alibi. Of course, good old Barbara agrees to perjurer herself and Peg opts out. Barbara does some dirty dancing to live bongos.

Barbara gets busted and earns a year in prison for perjury. She has five years of probation when she gets out. In a minute she is back to her partying ways. She begins working a check cashing hustle in bars and almost gets nabbed by an undercover cop until the bartender, Henry Graham (Wesley Lau) tips her off.

Later the bartender gets her a job clipping drunks from the bar when he hooks her up with the criminal gang consisting of Emmitt Perkins (Philip Coolidge), Santo (Lou Krugman), and King (James Philbrook). Occasionally she takes her marks to a crooked card games and splits the money with her pals. She drives getaway cars for robbery. She makes a pot of money and quits to marry the bartender Henry.

After a little time, the pair has a crying baby boy and we find out the bartender is a full on junkie, stealing the families money to get a fix. After he smacks her around she throws him out for good. After a bit, the landlord comes by with a kitted check. She begs for one more day to pay the rent.

She calls her old criminal boss about staying at his house but they say the cops are on the way. Barbara plans to drop the kid off with her mother and leave town with the two criminals, Emmett and Santo.  However, the police have a tail on her. The police and reporter Edward S. ‘Ed’ Montgomery (Simon Oakland) follow her to the hideout. Apparently, her two partners and King have just committed a murder. The police surround the building and give them the dead or alive warning. Emmitt, Santo, and King surrender. When Barbara comes out she is has been beaten by Santo and looks like hell when she is photographed for the paper.  The newspaper photo tech is Len Lesser.

I Want to Live! (1958)

I Want to Live! (1958)

Although she wasn’t at the murder they are pushing her to turn on the others. Montgomery plays up the hardened dame angle in the newspapers. She is booked into jail but tries to stay hard. She gets a subpoena to appear before the grand jury on a murder charge.

Peg shows up and to visit and she has reformed, married, and has children. She is not given the public defender as one of the others says she was the murderer. Her attorney is Tibrow. She has no alibi because of her junkie husband Henry. Rita, another prisoner, finds out she needs an alibi and agrees to get her friend Ben (Peter Breck) to give her an alibi.

Ben comes to visit and Barbara tells him she wasn’t there. They work out their plan for the alibi. Ben tricks her into to saying that she was at the murder under the guise of needing to know so he can’t be tripped up in court.

The DA starts the case and King says that Barbara did the murder. King gets a deal to testify. He comes across as credible. The press keeps pressing the murdering woman angle. Montgomery asks for an interview but is refused.

The prosecutor brings in Ben and he is identified as a police officer. Tibrow tries to withdraw because Barbara has lied to him. The tape recording of Ben and Barbara about sinks her case. Rita, who set up the Ben thing gets out of jail for her work.

The DA gets Barbara on the stand and roughs her up. The DA brings the husband Henry into court. When the DA announces she was previously convicted of perjury she is sunk further. Being a junkie her husband is no help. The three are convicted and King goes free.

Peg brings the baby up to visit but the room is full of reporters and photographers. Barbara eventually runs out in frustration. Barbara is sentenced to death by gas chamber. She is first sent to Chino and later transferred to San Quinton. She chews out the press and says Montgomery lead everyone to her execution. Barbara is placed into isolation in the prison. She has to adapt to the rules and they try to not be hard on her. She still has a tough streak. Montgomery guilt’s a new lawyer into helping Barbara and he engages Carl G.G. Palmberg (Theodore Bikel) as an expert physiologists and criminologist and apparently a man about to die.

Palmberg thinks she is amoral and criminal but she is innocent. He believes the other two think she will get pardoned and then they will not be executed. She is also left handed and breaks King’s story. Psych, law, and news join to free Barbara.

They refuse her a lie detector test as she appeals her conviction. Palmberg comes and reports that her appeal has been denied. Time passes in the prison and Barbara suffers not knowing her fate. Peg brings Barbara’s growing child to visit. Barbara gets a temporary stay of execution from the Supreme Court. Montgomery gives news that Palmberg has died and that the execution is back on.

Montgomery tries to get Perkins to let Barbara off the hook. Barbara enters the prison in a gray woman’s business suit rocking some dark glasses. She is met by Nurse Barbara (Alice Backes) and put on death watch. She will be watched 24 hours a day so she doesn’t kill herself and rob the hangman.

The Warden comes in and tries to make Barbara comfortable. Right near her cell the guards prepare the gas chamber. It is medieval with clipped wire, mixed chemicals, and cyanide pellets. The priest (John Marley) comes in and speaks with Barbara. She takes confession from the priest. Barbara gets upset when she hears that people want to adopt her son. Her lawyer Mr. Matthews show-up and says they are still appealing.

She is set to be executed at 10:00am but the governor keeps delaying it. Barbara becomes increasingly agitated by the on again off again nature of the process. All the police try to be kind but Barbara lashes out. Finally, the doc comes in and hooks her up. They strap her in the chamber and the witnesses come to watch. One of the guards (Dabbs Greer) tries to give her advice on dying and she rips into him. She asks for a blindfold and the poison is dropped. A brief struggle and she dies.

The lawyer delivers a letter from Barbara thanking Montgomery for his work. He turns off his hearing aid so he can’t hear the horns and the film goes silent. He drives away to a jazz soundtrack.

Many people were critical of this film saying it was just an anti-death penalty film as most evidence suggest the real Barbara was guilty of the murder.

World-Famous Short Summary – Girls just want to have fun.

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Beware the moors

I Want to Live! (1958)

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