Sometimes a lie is far more satisfying than the truth.
Barbara Graham was a prostitute, a drug abuser and convicted perjurer who in 1953 was among a gang of criminals who murdered 64-year-old widow Mabel Monohan during an attempted robbery in Monohan’s Burbank home.
Convicted along with two associates, Graham was executed in 1955 in San Quentin’s gas chamber. When the executioner advised Graham, who was already strapped into the chair, that she would die painlessly if she took a deep breath as the gas filled the chamber, she replied: “How would you know?”
I Want to Live! (1958) is the heavily fictionalized story of Graham’s unhappy life and dramatic death. It features a brilliant, Oscar-winning performance by red-headed Susan Hayward and is another example of director Robert Wise’s skill in tackling noirish subject matter.
The film is hugely effective...but is it true? The screenplay by Nelson Gidding and Don Mankiewicz makes the argument that Graham was innocent (at least of this particular crime), that she was executed largely on the false testimony of an accomplice who turned state’s evidence in return for immunity from prosecution.
The film dwells on Graham’s unhappy childhood and the economic and social pressures that drove her into a life of crime. And in the film’s second half – which follows her life in prison as she appeals her conviction – I Want to Live! becomes practically a docudrama on the nuts and bolts of execution. Its like would not be seen on the screen until Dead Man Walking 40 years later.
Movies are powerful things, and this modest box office hit offered yet another argument for those opposed to capital punishment.
But, again...was Barbara Graham innocent?
Observed from the distance of a half-century, it appears she was guilty as charged. In an effort to get Mrs. Monahan to reveal where she kept her valuables, Graham personally beat the elderly woman to death. (The gang left Burbank empty handed...they overlooked $15,000 in jewelry hidden in one of Mrs. Monahan’s closets).
Interviewed a few years after winning the Oscar for I Want to Live!, Hayward admitted that her own research into the role had led her to believe that Graham was guilty.
The movie was described as "a dramatic and eloquent piece of propaganda for the abolition of the death penalty" by the LA Daily Mirror's Gene Blake, who covered Graham's murder trial. But true or not, I Want to Live! remains a terrific movie and a powerful indictment of capital punishment, one that in addition to Hayward's Oscar win pulled down nominations for director Wise, cinematographer Lionel Lindon, film editor William Hornbeck, sound designer Gordon Sawyer and the two screenwriters.
See Bob's general introduction to the Robert Wise film series.
Other films in the series “Robert Wise: Hollywood Journeyman”
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- January 2: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) Not rated
- January 9: Two for the Seesaw (1962) Not rated
- January 23: I Want to Live! (1958) Not rated
- January 30: The Andromeda Strain (1971) Rated G
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- January 7: Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) Not rated
- January 14: Tribute to a Bad Man (1956) Not rated
- January 21: Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) Not rated
- January 28: The Sand Pebbles (1966) Not rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.