I Want to Live! (1958)

120 mins | Biography, Drama | November 1958

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HISTORY

The working title of the film was The Barbara Graham Story. A HR news item indicated that the film title was changed due to low audience recognition of the Barbara Graham case. The following statement appears as a written prologue and epilogue before the opening and closing credits: “You are about to see (You have just seen…) a factual story. It is based on articles I wrote, other newspaper and magazine articles, court records, legal and private correspondence, investigative reports, personal interviews--and the letters of Barbara Graham. Edward S. Montgomery, Pulitzer Prize Writer, San Francisco Examiner.”
       The film was based on the life of Barbara Graham, who was indicted for the Mar 1953 murder of widow Mabel Monahan in Burbank, CA. On 3 Jun 1955, Graham, along with co-conspirators Emmett Perkins and John “Jack” Santo was put to death in San Quentin in the state’s first triple execution. Graham was only the third woman to be put to death in California at that time. As depicted in the film, Graham had two last minute reprieves before she was finally executed in the gas chamber, still maintaining her innocence.
       According to a biography of producer Walter Wanger, Wanger was drawn to the life of B-girl turned death row inmate Barbara Graham after meeting SFExaminer reporter Ed Montgomery and reading his collection of the most interesting criminal cases that he had covered. After the film’s release, a controversy erupted over the declaration in the film by psychiatrist “Carl Palmberg” that Graham was left handed and the murder had been committed ...

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The working title of the film was The Barbara Graham Story. A HR news item indicated that the film title was changed due to low audience recognition of the Barbara Graham case. The following statement appears as a written prologue and epilogue before the opening and closing credits: “You are about to see (You have just seen…) a factual story. It is based on articles I wrote, other newspaper and magazine articles, court records, legal and private correspondence, investigative reports, personal interviews--and the letters of Barbara Graham. Edward S. Montgomery, Pulitzer Prize Writer, San Francisco Examiner.”
       The film was based on the life of Barbara Graham, who was indicted for the Mar 1953 murder of widow Mabel Monahan in Burbank, CA. On 3 Jun 1955, Graham, along with co-conspirators Emmett Perkins and John “Jack” Santo was put to death in San Quentin in the state’s first triple execution. Graham was only the third woman to be put to death in California at that time. As depicted in the film, Graham had two last minute reprieves before she was finally executed in the gas chamber, still maintaining her innocence.
       According to a biography of producer Walter Wanger, Wanger was drawn to the life of B-girl turned death row inmate Barbara Graham after meeting SFExaminer reporter Ed Montgomery and reading his collection of the most interesting criminal cases that he had covered. After the film’s release, a controversy erupted over the declaration in the film by psychiatrist “Carl Palmberg” that Graham was left handed and the murder had been committed by someone right handed. LAT and LAEx Mar 1959 news items dispute the suggestion, publishing a facsimile of a police report filled out by Graham in which she indicated that she was right handed. Additional stories in Los Angeles area newspapers criticized the film for inaccuracies, such as Graham’s assertion “I draw the line at dope,” when the trial revealed her to be a known drug user. The film’s depiction of a circus atmosphere surrounding the arrest of Graham and the others, was sharply contested by the L.A. police, who described the actual event as low key after they followed Graham from her meeting with a drug dealer.
       Various news reports further condemned the film’s producers for publicizing their use of journalist Montgomery’s articles when, as a San Francisco-based reporter, he did not personally cover a single session of Graham’s Los Angeles trial. As the film indicates, however, Montgomery’s articles for the SFExaminer were essential in portraying Graham as morally reprehensible. For example, Montgomery’s articles made much of the revelation during the trial that Graham had engaged in a lesbian relationship with a jail inmate who was offered a commuted sentence by the police if she would assist them in eliciting a confession from Graham. The film script’s suggestion of lesbianism between Graham and “Rita” was strongly protested by the PCA and dropped, but the entrapment ploy remained otherwise accurately portrayed. In a contemporary interview, Montgomery asserted that the SF Examiner was interested in the Monahan murder trial primarily due to Santo’s involvement, as he was known to have committed several crimes in Northern California. Montgomery also countered that he visited the trial weekly and rewrote another reporter’s coverage for daily columns. After Graham’s sentencing, Montgomery joined attorney Al Matthews in an attempt to save Graham from the gas chamber.
       The same news reports critical of the film accused producer Walter Wanger of distorting Graham’s story further by omitting characters critical to leading to her arrest and subsequent guilty verdict. Ex-convict and safe blowing expert Baxter Shorter testified to the police in late Mar 1953 that he participated in the robbery attempt at the Monahan house with Perkins, Santo, John True (“Bruce King” in the film) and a woman known as “Mary” who fit Graham’s description and who was used primarily to gain access to the Monahan home. Shorter testified that he and another petty criminal, Billy Upshaw, had cased the Monahan residence for several weeks after they learned that the widow’s former son-in-law, well known Las Vegas gambling figure Luther Scherer, occasionally visited and may have stored large amounts of money in a safe there. After this testimony, Shorter was kidnapped and never seen again and was presumed to have been murdered. Shorter’s wife identified Perkins as one of her husband’s kidnappers. John True, included in the film under another name, later turned state’s evidence and reportedly gave testimony that corroborated that of Shorter, placing Graham at the crime scene, holding the gun used to beat Mrs. Monahan.
       In answer to criticism against the film, Montgomery claimed that including Shorter in the film would have made it too long. In their testimony, both Shorter and True indicated that Perkins had tied a pillow case around the victim’s head. A modern source claims that the Monahan autopsy report revealed that she died from strangulation, not from the injuries sustained by the severe beating. A Mar 1960 LAT news item revealed that Graham purportedly confessed her participation in the Monahan murder to San Quentin Warden Harley Teets, who died in 1957, before the release of I Want to Live!. The film did not indicate that Graham underwent a religious transformation in prison, returning to her Catholic roots, but accurately portrayed her drawn out execution process.
       Wanger’s biography states that he initially sought Edward Dmytryk to direct the film, believing that as a member of the Hollywood Ten who had spent a year in prison on a contempt charge, Dmytryk would give the film an additional air of authenticity. The biography also states that after Wanger convinced Susan Hayward to play the lead role, she recommended Daniel Mann, who had directed her in the successful M-G-M 1955 production of I’ll Cry Tomorrow (see entry). Wanger's biography mentions that other directors considered by the producer were Orson Welles, John Sturges and John Frankenheimer.
       According to information contained in the file on the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, Apr 1958 correspondence between Wanger and PCA head Geoffrey Shurlock indicates that the Los Angeles Police Captain Sheldon ordered the department not to cooperate with the film’s production because it implied that Graham may have been innocent. Further correspondence between Wanger and Shurlock indicates that several requests for changes in the script were not followed. In modern interviews, director Robert Wise revealed that he got the idea of filming the lengthy details of the preparation for the execution after talking at length with the priest to whom Graham confessed before her death. Wise gained permission to witness an execution in order to present the details in the film as correctly as possible.
       Upon its release, I Want to Live! received powerful reviews. Although both Wanger and Wise denied the film intended to make a point, most critics and audiences accepted it for a strong condemnation of the death penalty. The DV review stated “In portraying Barbara Graham as innocent, (the film) is perhaps the most damning indictment of capital punishment ever presented in any entertainment medium,” after calling it “one of the year’s best pictures, and one that sets a milestone for boldness and realism.” The HR called it “one of the most harrowing and yet fascinating pieces of screen realism seen in recent years.” NYT praised Hayward’s performance, stating “she’s never done anything so vivid or so shattering to an audience’s nerve.” Hayward went on to win an Academy Award for Best Actress. The film also received Academy nominations for Best Cinematography (black and white), Best Director, Best Editor, Best Sound and Best Screenplay. In 1983 a television remake was broadcast, with Lindsay Wagner starring as Barbara Graham.

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SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Box Office
3 Nov 1958
---
Box Office
10 Nov 1958
---
Daily Variety
7 May 1958
---
Daily Variety
28 Oct 1958
p. 3
Film Daily
28 Oct 1958
p. 10
Hollywood Reporter
7 Nov 1957
p. 1
Hollywood Reporter
11 Dec 1957
p. 3
Hollywood Reporter
28 Mar 1958
p. 38
Hollywood Reporter
11 Apr 1958
---
Hollywood Reporter
23 May 1958
p. 22
Hollywood Reporter
28 Oct 1958
p. 3
Hollywood Reporter
8 Jan 1959
---
Life
8 Dec 1958
pp. 115-117
Los Angeles Herald Express
4 Mar 1959
---
Los Angeles Mirror
28 Nov 1958
---
Los Angeles Times
16 Nov 1958
---
Los Angeles Times
28 Nov 1958
---
Los Angeles Times
1 Mar 1959
---
Los Angeles Times
11 Mar 1960
---
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest
1 Nov 1958
p. 36
New York Times
19 Nov 1958
p. 45
Valley Times
9 Mar 1959
---
Valley TImes
11 Mar 1959
---
Variety
29 Oct 1958
p. 6
Variety
25 Feb 1959
---
Variety
4 Mar 1959
---
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Asst dir
PRODUCER
PHOTOGRAPHY
Photog
ART DIRECTOR
Edward Haworth
Settings
FILM EDITOR
SET DECORATOR
Set dec
COSTUMES
MUSIC
John Mandel
Mus comp and cond
SOUND
Sd rec
MAKEUP
Makeup
Makeup
Hairstylist
Hairstylist
PRODUCTION MISC
Mgr of prod
Scr supv
Casting
DETAILS
Alternate Title:
The Barbara Graham Story
Release Date:
November 1958
Premiere Information:
New York opening: 18 Nov 1958
Production Date:
late Mar--late May 1958
Copyright Info
Claimant
Date
Copyright Number
Figaro, Inc.
11 November 1958
LP12783
Physical Properties:
Sound
Westrex Recording System
Black and White
Duration(in mins):
120
Country:
United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
19142
SYNOPSIS

In 1950 San Francisco, vivacious petty criminal Barbara Ward is caught by the vice squad in a hotel room with a married man who brought her over the state line. To prevent the man’s arrest, Barbara willingly accepts a misdemeanor solicitation charge. After serving a brief jail term, Barbara returns to her hometown of San Diego and resumes a life of revelry with her best friend, Peg. One evening, two friends from San Francisco visit Barbara to plead with her to provide them with an alibi for a robbery they committed. Nervous about their continual brushes with the law, Peg tells Barbara she cannot continue with their lifestyle and the friends part amicably. Barbara provides the men with a false alibi, but soon after is convicted of perjury and sentenced to a year in prison. Upon her release, Barbara returns to soliciting and passing bad checks. One evening, bartender Henry “Hank” Graham tips Barbara off to an undercover policeman at his bar, then later introduces the grateful, unemployed Barbara to an acquaintance, thief Emmett Perkins. Perkins offers Barbara a steady job as his “shill,” bringing in unsuspecting men to fleece at his gambling parlor. After she has earned a sizeable salary, Barbara quits Perkins to marry Hank, entering into her third marriage, intending to leave her life of criminality behind. A year later, Barbara and Hank have an infant son named Bobby, but quarrel frequently over Hank’s drug habit, which has cost him his job. Nearly destitute, Barbara throws Hank out. A few days later, when Barbara is threatened with eviction, she leaves Bobby with her ...

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In 1950 San Francisco, vivacious petty criminal Barbara Ward is caught by the vice squad in a hotel room with a married man who brought her over the state line. To prevent the man’s arrest, Barbara willingly accepts a misdemeanor solicitation charge. After serving a brief jail term, Barbara returns to her hometown of San Diego and resumes a life of revelry with her best friend, Peg. One evening, two friends from San Francisco visit Barbara to plead with her to provide them with an alibi for a robbery they committed. Nervous about their continual brushes with the law, Peg tells Barbara she cannot continue with their lifestyle and the friends part amicably. Barbara provides the men with a false alibi, but soon after is convicted of perjury and sentenced to a year in prison. Upon her release, Barbara returns to soliciting and passing bad checks. One evening, bartender Henry “Hank” Graham tips Barbara off to an undercover policeman at his bar, then later introduces the grateful, unemployed Barbara to an acquaintance, thief Emmett Perkins. Perkins offers Barbara a steady job as his “shill,” bringing in unsuspecting men to fleece at his gambling parlor. After she has earned a sizeable salary, Barbara quits Perkins to marry Hank, entering into her third marriage, intending to leave her life of criminality behind. A year later, Barbara and Hank have an infant son named Bobby, but quarrel frequently over Hank’s drug habit, which has cost him his job. Nearly destitute, Barbara throws Hank out. A few days later, when Barbara is threatened with eviction, she leaves Bobby with her mother and returns to Perkins, who is now in league with John Santo and Bruce King. One evening, Barbara is followed to Perkins’ warehouse hideout by the police, who are accompanied by San Francisco newspaper reporter Ed Montgomery. The police surround the building, demanding Perkins, Santo and Barbara surrender individually. Despite being beaten by Santo, Barbara brashly surrenders, her defiant attitude captured by the newspapers and embellished by Ed’s stories in the days following. Barbara weathers a tough interrogation, yet is stunned when the police accuse her of involvement with Perkins and Santo in the murder of Burbank matron Mabel Monahan. Despite Barbara’s insistence that on the night of the murder she was home with her husband and child, she is indicted by a grand jury. Peg, now married and the mother of two small children, visits Barbara and offers to help with Bobby. Attorney Richard C. Tibrow is assigned Barbara’s case and tells her that until Hank is located, Barbara has no credible alibi. Despondent, Barbara accepts the offer of jail mate Rita to buy a phony alibi from a friend. Barbara meets Rita’s acquaintance, Ben Miranda, and the pair concocts a story covering the night of the murder. Miranda repeatedly demands to know where Barbara really was in order to protect himself, but she insists that she was at home. When Miranda threatens to call off the deal, Barbara admits that she was with Perkins and Santo. In court, King testifies under immunity that Barbara pistol-whipped Mrs. Monahan during a robbery attempt. In his testimony, Miranda reveals that he is an undercover policeman who set up Barbara to elicit a confession. The district attorney then plays a tape recording made by Miranda during his visit to Barbara detailing her attempt to buy an alibi and confession of being at the murder scene. Despite this shock, under questioning Barbara maintains her innocence and asserts that she used Miranda out of fear of the death penalty. After Barbara’s perjury conviction is revealed, Hank takes the stand and refutes her alibi. Barbara, Perkins and Santo are found guilty. When Tibrow withdraws due to illness he is replaced by Al Matthews, who learns that no new trial is possible despite the police’s questionable use of Miranda. After Barbara and the others are sentenced to death, Barbara is transferred to Corona prison to await her execution date and is placed in isolation where she refuses to wear prison garb and demands a radio. Remaining on Barbara’s case for her appeal, Al brings her to psychologist Carl Palmberg in hopes of having the psychologist administer a lie detector test to Barbara. Convinced that he has been wrong in condemning Barbara, Ed joins Carl and Al to help prevent her execution. After speaking at length with Barbara, Carl believes that while she is completely amoral, she has a strong aversion to violence and points out that she is left-handed and the crime was committed by someone right-handed. Al is exuberant about Carl’s report, and Ed writes a sympathetic series detailing Barbara’s life. As the execution date draws near, Barbara vacillates between anxiety and despair, writing long letters to Carl, Ed and Peg. On the same day that Peg brings Bobby for a visit, a Supreme Court stay comes through, giving Barbara hope that her sentence may be commuted. Soon after, however, she receives the devastating news that Carl has died from heart disease. When Al’s petition for a new trial is denied, an execution date is set. The day prior to her execution, a resigned Barbara struggles to maintain a brave attitude upon her transfer to San Quentin. As the prison prepares to put Barbara, Perkins and Santo to death by gas, Barbara meets with a priest to make her confession. Later that night, Barbara is livid upon overhearing a radio report that several couples are interested in adopting Bobby. As dawn approaches, Barbara sits with a friendly prison nurse and wistfully describes a fictitiously happy marriage with Hank, then requests an ice cream sundae as part of her last meal. The prison staff continues the gassing preparations, but forty-five minutes before Barbara’s scheduled execution, the governor declares a stay, prompting a mixture of relief and dismay from a strained Barbara. In less than half an hour, however, Al’s writ is denied and the execution ordered to proceed. Despite her tension, Barbara dresses stylishly with dangling earrings and high heels, which she is allowed to wear into the gas chamber. Inside the chamber, as Barbara glimpses a multitude of reporters through the glass, the phone rings and another stay is declared to hear Al’s amended writ. Collapsing beneath frayed nerves, Barbara is partially carried back to her cell pleading to know why she is being tortured. Everyone waits tensely for several minutes, but the writ is rejected and Barbara’s execution is again ordered to proceed immediately. Barbara demands a mask, unwilling to see the reporters’ faces again and is guided into the gas chamber, strapped into the chair and put to death by gas. As Ed despondently leaves the prison, Al drives up and presents him with a note from Barbara thanking him for all his efforts on her behalf.

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Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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