Monday, June 9, 2008

Prison Heartbreak

I Want to Live! is absolutely one of the most emotionally-wrenching, upsetting, disturbing, powerful, and affecting films ever made. From my own experience, I'd say it ties with Requiem for a Dream for the top spot. Many people have never heard of I Want to Live!, but if you've seen Requiem, you understand the weight of my comparison.

It's such a tragedy that I Want to Live! is so forgotten today, because it's one of the great cinematic masterpieces. It tells the true (arguably - based on lots of facts, but it IS a movie) story of Barbara Graham, a woman wrongly (in the movie) imprisoned for murder and served up as sort of a sacrificial lamb for society to feast upon. Everyone who can uses her and screws her over. She sells papers (this film from 1958 gets media frenzy like few others), she's the scapegoat for her male "accomplices," her case can make or break lawyer's careers, and among other things, she can function as a walking dollar sign, promotion, or "get out of jail free" card. It's truly sick.

I'm not exaggerating when I say that this film is one of the most brutal experiences you'll ever have in your life. I Want to Live! is a knockout from start to finish, but it gets stronger and more taxing as it goes on, to say the very least. There are courtroom scenes as riveting as any I've ever seen in a film. But when Barbara gets sentenced to death by the gas chamber, buckle up. Director Robert Wise painstakingly recreates the circumstances of this capital punishment, down to the last painful detail. For the final half hour (maybe even longer), you just sit there and watch the preparations for her death. You see the chamber readied, the cyanide capsules carefully gathered and rigged, and all the rest. This is excruciatingly intercut with Barbara waiting to hear if her execution is postponed or even dismissed. Words really can't even describe it. You just have to see the movie. I won't tell you what happens, but I promise you'll never forget it.

Now, I mentioned this was directed by Robert Wise. Yes, the Robert Wise behind The Haunting, West Side Story, and The Sound of Music. Try thinking of The Sound of Music in the context of what I just described to you. It's mind-boggling. He is truly one of the most talented and treasured chameleons we ever had. The look and feel of I Want to Live! is jazzy, edgy, and way ahead of its time.

Susan Hayward stars as Barbara Graham, and that's really all you need to know in terms of cast. Yes, the acting is uniformly great, but no one else matters. I don't even know what to say about her. I almost don't feel worthy to write about Hayward in this film. My writing seems so feeble. Seeing is the only way to know. But I'll say this - she delivers one of the best performances in film history, like in the top ten. She explodes with raw, fierce energy, like a volcano. It's such an unbridled, fearless performance. Hayward embodies life itself. It's just incredible. She won the Oscar for I Want to Live!, proof that there is some justice in this cruel world.

I've seen I Want to Live! three times now, and I've never cried, at least not more than misty eyes or a few tears here or there. I practically weep at Disney movies, so I thought I would sob uncontrollably at this. But nope, barely even a drop. I didn't get it. I felt inhuman, like a monster. Then, I realized - I Want to Live! hit me too hard to cry.

Rating: ***** (out of 5)


Bill Treadway said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
BraveSrRob said...

Hey there Lisa, it's B, aka Brian, from Sara's blog.

As you can see, I have no problem taking orders from women and stopped by to check out your site. haha. Actually, I was on here earlier today and was traumatized by the oyster massacre.

I do NOT remember that from Alice in Wonderland, though I don't remember most of the movie. For whatever reason, I've not watched the old Disney movies in years, but I've seen a lot of the newer classics on a yearly basis.

Anyway, you're being added to my bookmarks and I'll be stopping in. That being said, I probably won't have seen most of the movies you write about as I tend to not watch movies from prior to 1960 (except for some Westerns). So, I won't have a whole lot to contribute.

On top of that, I have some issues with some of the movies from that time period which I will not mention because if you thought we could get into it over Sex and the City, oh Lord will I make you mad if we talk about a couple of most famous movies from the era.

(Do like Citizen Kane though, so I'm not all bad.)

BraveSrRob said...

I just glanced at my DVD shelf and had a thought that you might like for your blog (obviously, feele free to ignore).

Anyway, I saw the countdown to Dark Knight in the upper right and thought that in preparation for a movie you're obviously psyched about (I saw your summer movie rankings from an earlier post) you could look at the other Batman movies and see how they all stack up. Original? Not overly, but I'd be interested in your take and it's particularly relevant since a live action Batman may finally be able to unseat Mask of thee Phantasm as the best Batman movie.

Lisa Draski said...

Hi, Brian!

Thanks for coming by. Haha, orders... Well, I'm happy that you can take orders from a woman. :)

Yeah, the oyster scene is horrifying. Disney has some dark stuff that you don't realize is appalling until you're old enough to process it. Perhaps that part is subconsciously the reason why I have a phobia of fish, seafood, and the sea in general?

Oh, I think you'll have plenty to contribute to the discussions on here. While my heart is in old Hollywood, I'd say 85% of my stuff on here deals with the 90s on.

Uh oh, issues with that period? Yeah, it's probably best we avoid that for now. As long as you don't have a problem with, say, Katharine Hepburn, then we're cool. The actual films - who knows, I might dislike them, too.

Citizen Kane IS good. I think it's practically a law to like it, but I was delighted when I finally saw it to know that it actually was that great.

I like your Batman idea. I have seen the first three fairly recently, so I'd have to see the fourth (ugh) and Batman Begins. Thanks for the suggestion!

Hope to see you around!


BraveSrRob said...


Oh come on. You can't ignore the best and arguably second best (Return of the Joker) Batman movies out there. More people need to be informed about Mask of the Phantasm. Plus, no love for Adam West? FOR SHAME! haha.

Actually, the films I was thinking about were Casablanca and the Maltese Falcon ::ducks::. I haven't seen Casablanca since high school, so I can't point out specific reasons I don't like it and thus can't defend my position.

Also, I think I've only seen one movie that Katherine Hepburn has been in, which is On Golden Pond and I saw it when I was 10 ::ducks and hides under his school desk, which will protect him in case of a nuclear explosion::. Haha, so I have no opinion on her. My only knowledge of her comes from The Aviator, but if she was like that, she was pretty damn awesome.

Lisa Draski said...

Katharine Hepburn WAS like that in The Aviator. They got her spirit right. Cate Blanchett is the only person I'd be okay with playing her, so it was a big deal for me to accept it.

Actually, never seen The Maltese Falcon, and I don't care for Casablanca myself. So see? We're not so different. :)

I LOVE Adam West...on Family Guy! Actually, I've never seen the animated Batman stuff. I was wanting to just stick to the live action theatrical releases for comparison. I've already got such strong ideas about the ones I've seen and grown up with that I'm not sure I could be as fair with new ones as I'd want to. But, I will check them out some time, probably not for the thing on here, but I promise I will.