I Want To Live!, 1958. 8/10

This really grew on me. The opening scenes, with the sordid, film-noir clubs and backrooms were a cool set-up. After Barbara (Susan Hayword) gets implicated in the murder, she’s betrayed by everyone who could’ve helped her; soon, however, the journalist and the psychologist (Theode Bikel) come over to her side. Then, she’s betrayed by fate, as the shrink dies, her appeals are denied, and she’s on death row. The last part of the movie is the most intense, as she’s doomed…but has occasional glimmers of hope shut off by thickening layers of disappointment.

The clinical atmosphere of the death chamber, and the agonizingly slow wait for this denouement, is completely horrific. The very last scene, showing the banality of honking horns from the departing ‘audience’ to the execution, is an ironical trivialization of Barbara’s death. She’s been abused, scorned, laughed at, used, (maybe) set-up, and, then disposed of. It does seem that she has been railroaded; but that is significantly not demonstrated. Nonetheless, her predicament is portrayed sympathetically. Susan Hayward’s performance is very strong. Since I’m unfamiliar with the actual case, my impression of her take on Barbara is completely subjective.

I agree with those viewers who find her character unsympathetic. In fact, the only thing I like about her is her friend Peg (Virginia Vincent). It’s kind of funny when Peg first visits Barbara in jail; “would you believe it? I’m a real square” Peg admits. Barbara definitely admires her for having the guts to leave the swinging lifestyle. Barbara undoubtedly wishes she could be a ‘square’ too. At the very least, this scene tells us that she’s not the asocial misfit that she’s made out to be. Still, she’s immensely unlikable. It’s that strange nonchalance of hers; sort of a fake savoir-faire. Like she’s better than everyone (‘the squares’) because she doesn’t give a hang. It’s not really personality, it’s a pose. Especially annoying are her pantomimed dice-rollings to ‘explain’ her who-cares mentality.

Having said that, though, she seems to develop an actual self as she faces death. There’s poignancy in the way she engages with the prison staff, as well as some natural scorn for what they represent. Toting her son’s teddy bear all that way is whimsical and touching. It doesn’t matter that there’s no gore or zombies or other current props of horror–the execution scene is creepy beyond sensationalism. The realism is absolute.

The pacing and atmosphere are aided by the intrusive TV and newspaper updates, much of which is misinformation. It’s all the more effective because Barbara can’t get away from it; she even gets slammed with the news on her case from the prison TV. Another colorful element is the jazzy music. It represents pure fun; sort of a harmless escape from the ‘square’ world. Barbara is the tragic noir hero who’s handed a bad deal and plays it recklessly. 8/10.

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