I Want to Live!
I Want to Live! (1958) master poster art.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byRobert Wise
Screenplay byNelson Gidding
Don Mankiewicz
Based onArticles and letters
by Edward Montgomery and Barbara Graham
Produced byWalter Wanger
CinematographyLionel Lindon
Edited byWilliam Hornbeck
Music byJohnny Mandel
Figaro, Inc.
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release date
  • October 29, 1958 (1958-10-29)[1]
Running time
120 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$1.4 million[1]
Box office$3.5 million[2]—$5.6 million[1]

I Want to Live! is a 1958 American biographical film noir directed by Robert Wise, and starring Susan Hayward, Simon Oakland, Virginia Vincent, and Theodore Bikel. It follows the life of Barbara Graham, a prostitute and habitual criminal who is convicted of murder and faces capital punishment. The screenplay, written by Nelson Gidding and Don Mankiewicz, was adapted from personal letters written by Graham, in addition to newspaper articles written by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ed Montgomery. The film presents a highly fictionalized version of the case, indicating the possibility that Graham may have been innocent.

Released in late 1958, I Want to Live! was a commercial and critical success, garnering favorable reviews from critics for both Hayward's performance as well as the film's realistic depiction of capital punishment. The film earned a total of six Academy Award nominations, with Hayward winning a Best Actress Oscar at the 31st Academy Awards, as well as the Golden Globe Award in the same category.


In 1950 San Francisco, petty criminal and prostitute Barbara Graham faces a misdemeanor charge for soliciting sex. She returns to her native San Diego, but is soon charged with perjury after she provides two criminal friends a false alibi. She subsequently returns to sex work and other criminal activities to make a living. She begins working for thief Emmett Perkins by luring men to his gambling parlor. Barbara manages to earn a significant amount of money, and quits working for Emmett to marry Hank, her third husband. The couple have a son, Bobby, but their marriage is turbulent due to Hank's drug addiction, which leaves him jobless.

Barbara throws Hank out of her house, but is subsequently evicted. Desperate, she leaves Bobby in the care of her mother and returns to working for Emmett, who is now associated with thugs John Santo and Bruce King. Police eventually crack down on the operation, and Barbara surrenders. During the interrogation, however, she is stunned when authorities accuse her of helping Perkins and Santo murder Mabel Monahan, an elderly Burbank woman. Barbara insists she was home with her husband and son the night of the murder, but is indicted by a grand jury. Barbara's childhood friend, Peg, visits her in jail, and agrees to help care for Bobby.

Attorney Richard Tibrow is assigned to Barbara's case, and informs her that her alibi is meaningless unless Hank can corroborate it. Barbara foolishly accepts a phony alibi from Ben Miranda, a friend of her jail mate, Rita. Ben insists that Barbara admit she helped with the murder before agreeing to provide the alibi, and she reluctantly implicates herself. During the trial, Hank refutes Barbara's alibi, and a taped recording of her confession, made by Ben during their meeting, is used as evidence against her. Barbara insists that she sought the phony alibi only to avoid the death penalty, and that her admission is false. She is ultimately convicted, along with Emmett and John; all three are sentenced to death.

Tibrow withdraws from Barbara's case and is replaced by Al Matthews. In prison, Barbara is relentlessly defiant, refusing to wear her uniform and demanding a radio. Matthews has psychologist Carl Palmberg evaluate Barbara in the hopes of ultimately administering a lie detection test. After visiting with her, Carl states that while Barbara appears to be amoral, she is averse to violence; he also points out that she is left-handed, and the bludgeoning death of Mabel was committed by a right-handed person. Journalist Edward Montgomery, who has covered Barbara's case since the beginning, begins questioning her conviction, and starts publishing a sympathetic series profiling her troubled life. As her execution date draws near, Barbara grows increasingly anxious. A Supreme Court stay gives her hope that her sentence may be commuted, but it is overturned when Carl dies unexpectedly of heart disease. Al's petition for a retrial is denied, and Barbara's execution date is set.

The day before her execution, a demoralized Barbara is transferred to San Quentin Prison, where she meets with a priest. That evening, she is angered to hear that her son has been put up for adoption. An anxious Barbara stays up all night, wistfully recounting her marriage with Hank to a prison nurse. For her final meal, she requests an ice cream sundae. In the morning, forty-five minutes before Barbara's scheduled execution, California Governor Goodwin J. Knight declares a stay, but Al's writ is struck down and the execution ordered to proceed. Barbara is taken to the gas chamber, but the execution is again halted when Al's amended writ is declared.

The uncertainty and desperation surrounding her fate reduces Barbara to hysterics. She is returned to her cell, where she and the prison staff wait several minutes for a response to Al's writ; they are informed it has again been rejected, and Barbara's execution is ordered to proceed immediately. Before entering the gas chamber, Barbara demands a mask, as she does not want to see the faces of the journalists there. She is strapped to the chair and executed with cyanide gas. After Barbara is pronounced dead, a despondent Edward leaves the prison. On his way out, he is met by Al, who gives him a note from Barbara thanking him for his efforts to help her.



According to historian Kathleen Cairns, I Want to Live! "implied that Graham's guilt or innocence was largely irrelevant, that the real crime was committed by a justice system that framed her and a media that abetted the effort... In reality, the film took liberty with many facts of the case."[3] The film also suggests that Graham, though believed to have sociopathic tendencies in real life, was rather merely self-destructive due to her loveless childhood and abusive mother.[3]

A prologue and epilogue contributed to the film by Edward Montgomery, the journalist who covered Graham's case, characterize the film's content–which largely portrays Graham as innocent of the murder–as factual. However, there was substantial evidence of Graham's complicity in the crime which included her taped confession to an undercover officer.[4] Hollywood writer Robert Osborne, who later became the host of Turner Classic Movies, interviewed Hayward and asked whether or not she believed Barbara Graham had been innocent.[5] According to Osborne, the actress seemed hesitant to answer at first, but ultimately admitted that her research on the evidence and letters in the case led her to believe that the woman she played was guilty.[5]

Despite some of the liberties taken with Graham's story, the film is generally considered to be very accurate in its depiction of how the California gas chamber functioned in the mid-20th century.[6][7]



The film's screenplay was originally written by Don Mankiewicz, based on letters by convicted murderer Barbara Graham, executed in 1955, as well as a series of articles by esteemed journalist Edward S. Montgomery.[8] In early 1958, after a draft of the screenplay was completed, Nelson Gidding was commissioned to redraft it and tighten the narrative as it "lacked focus" and spent too much time detailing Graham's troubled childhood.[9] Gidding's redrafting also omitted the murder scene of Mable Monohan, as well as Graham's months spent at San Quentin Prison during her appeals.[9]


Susan Hayward was cast in the lead role of Barbara Graham.[9] When questioned on taking the controversial role, Hayward said: "I just had to play her. If I hadn't thought they should make [the film], I wouldn't have played the part."[9]


Principal photography of I Want to Live! began in April 1958.[9]

To ensure the execution sequence was depicted as accurately as possible Wise attended a public execution at San Quentin Prison.[9] Hayward commented after completing filming that her simulated experience of execution led her to believe the practice was "medieval."[9]

Musical score

Main article: I Want to Live! (score)

In addition to Mandel's score, the film features jazz themes performed by Gerry Mulligan's Jazz Combo. Two soundtrack albums were released on the United Artists label in 1958.[10]


Box office

Some sources state the film grossed $3.5 million,[2] though in the Walter Wanger biography Walter Wanger, Hollywood Independent (2000), the film is said to have grossed $5,641,711, with a net profit of $2,455,570.[1] Star Hayward was entitled to 37% of the film's overall profit.[11]

Critical response

Hayward received an Oscar for her portrayal of Barbara Graham.
Hayward received an Oscar for her portrayal of Barbara Graham.

Upon release, I Want to Live! was met with a largely favorable critical response, with many critics heralding the film as an "indictment against capital punishment," citing its clinical, harrowing depiction of execution.[12] Producer Walter Wanger received numerous congratulatory letters praising the film after its release, namely from writers Arthur Miller, Paddy Chayefsky, Leon Uris, and Albert Camus, all of whom were ardent opponents of capital punishment.[13]

Variety magazine gave the film a favorable review: "There is no attempt to gloss the character of Barbara Graham, only an effort to understand it through some fine irony and pathos. She had no hesitation about indulging in any form of crime or vice that promised excitement on her own, rather mean, terms... Hayward brings off this complex characterization. Simon Oakland, as Montgomery, who first crucified Barbara Graham in print and then attempted to undo what he had done, underplays his role with assurance.[14]

Film critic Bosley Crowther of The New York Times liked the film and wrote, "...Miss Hayward plays it superbly, under the consistently sharp direction of Robert Wise, who has shown here a stunning mastery of the staccato realistic style. From a loose and wise-cracking B-girl she moves onto levels of cold disdain and then plunges down to depths of terror and bleak surrender as she reaches the end. Except that the role does not present us a precisely pretty character, its performance merits for Miss Hayward the most respectful applause."[15]

Gene Blake, the reporter who covered the actual murder trial for the Los Angeles Daily Mirror, and who described how the movie took liberties with the facts, called the movie "a dramatic and eloquent piece of propaganda for the abolition of the death penalty."[16]

By March 1959, Billboard noted that the popularity of the film and of Mandel's and Mulligan's albums "prompted a rush of jazz film scores", and cited the signing of Duke Ellington to do the score for that year's Anatomy of a Murder, the release of The Five Pennies (a biopic about the jazz band leader Red Nichols), and a 1960 documentary Jazz on a Summer's Day.[17]

In a 1993 re-appraisal, film critic Danny Peary opines that Hayward is "...the actress of that era [the 1940s and '50s] who most needs rediscovery, and the best film to start with is I Want to Live!."[18]

The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes currently reports a 92% approval rating based on 13 reviews, with an average rating of 7.9/10.[19]

Awards and honors

Award Year Category Nominee(s) Result Ref.
Academy Awards 1958 Best Director Robert Wise Nominated [20]
Best Actress Susan Hayward Won
Best Screenplay – Based on Material from Another Medium Don Mankiewicz and Nelson Gidding Nominated
Best Cinematography – Black-and-White Lionel Lindon Nominated
Best Film Editing William Hornbeck Nominated
Best Sound Gordon E. Sawyer Nominated
American Film Institute's 10 Top 10 2008 Courtroom Drama Film Nominated [21]
British Academy Film Awards 1959 Best Foreign Actress Susan Hayward Nominated [22]
David di Donatello Awards 1959 Best Foreign Actress Won
Directors Guild of America Awards 1959 Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures Robert Wise Nominated
Golden Globe Awards 1959 Best Motion Picture – Drama Nominated [23]
Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama Susan Hayward Won
Best Director – Motion Picture Robert Wise Nominated
Grammy Awards 1959 Best Sound Track Album, Dramatic Picture Score or Original Cast Johnny Mandel Nominated
Laurel Awards 1959 Top Drama Nominated
Top Female Dramatic Performance Susan Hayward Nominated
Top Cinematography – Black-and-White Lionel Lindon Nominated
Best Score Johnny Mandel Nominated
Mar del Plata International Film Festival 1958 Best Film Robert Wise Nominated
Best Actress Susan Hayward Won
New York Film Critics Circle Awards 1958 Best Actress Won
Sant Jordi Awards 1958 Best Foreign Actress Won
Writers Guild of America Awards 1959 Best Written American Drama Nelson Gidding and Don Mankiewicz Nominated

Home media

MGM Home Entertainment released I Want to Live! on DVD for the first time on May 7, 2002.[24] Kino Lorber reissued the film on DVD featuring a restored print in October 2015.[25] In November 2016, Twilight Time released the film on Blu-ray for the first time in an edition limited to 3,000 units.[26]


I Want to Live! was remade for television in 1983. It featured Lindsay Wagner, Martin Balsam, Pamela Reed, Harry Dean Stanton, Dana Elcar, Ellen Geer, Robert Ginty and Barry Primus.


  1. ^ a b c d Bernstein 2000, p. 446.
  2. ^ a b Cairns 2013, p. 123.
  3. ^ a b Cairns 2013, p. 114.
  4. ^ Gilmore 2005, pp. 288–291.
  5. ^ a b Osborne, Robert (February 20, 2009). I Want to Live! (Telecast of film with commentary). Turner Classic Movies.
  6. ^ Papke 2012, p. 440.
  7. ^ Stafford, Jeff. "I Want to Live". Turner Classic Movies. Archived from the original on June 3, 2020.
  8. ^ Cairns 2013, pp. 111–112.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g Cairns 2013, p. 112.
  10. ^ "United Artists UAL-40000/UAL 4000 mono/UAS 5000 stereo Series" (PDF). Both Sides Now Publications. Retrieved August 18, 2015.
  11. ^ "Susan Hayward". Variety. November 12, 1958. p. 5 – via Archive.org.
  12. ^ Cairns 2013, p. 120.
  13. ^ Cairns 2013, p. 121.
  14. ^ "I Want to Live!". Variety. December 31, 1957. Retrieved March 24, 2008.
  15. ^ Crowther, Bosley (November 19, 1958). "Vivid Performance by Susan Hayward; Actress Stars in I Want to Live". The New York Times. Retrieved March 24, 2008.
  16. ^ Blake, Gene (November 28, 1958). "Barbara Graham case revisited, November 28, 1958". Los Angeles Daily Mirror. Retrieved July 19, 2018 – via Los Angeles Times.
  17. ^ Bundy, June (March 9, 1959). "Late 50s Bid for Posterity Fame as Real 'Jazz Age'". Billboard. p. 42. Retrieved August 11, 2010.
  18. ^ Peary 1993, p. 146.
  19. ^ "I Want to Live! (1958)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved July 19, 2018.
  20. ^ "The 31st Academy Awards | 1958". Oscars.org. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Retrieved August 21, 2011.
  21. ^ "Official Ballot" (PDF). AFI's 10 Top 10. American Film Institute. Archived from the original (PDF) on July 16, 2011. Retrieved August 19, 2016.
  22. ^ "Film: Foreign Actress in 1960". BAFTA Awards. Archived from the original on June 3, 2020.
  23. ^ "Golden Globe Awards for 'I Want To Live!'". Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Archived from the original on June 3, 2020.
  24. ^ Ordway, Holly E. (May 19, 2002). "I Want to Live!: DVD Talk Review of the DVD Video". DVD Talk. Archived from the original on June 3, 2020.
  25. ^ Pewenofkit, Scott (November 12, 2015). "I Want to Live!: DVD Talk Review of the DVD Video". DVD Talk. Archived from the original on June 3, 2020.
  26. ^ Harrison, William (December 30, 2016). "I Want to Live! (Limited Edition Series) (Blu-ray)". DVD Talk. Archived from the original on June 3, 2020.