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I Want to Live!

In today's cynical, irony-steeped, high-speed entertainment environment, it's tempting to dismiss I Want to Live! — with its pulpy title and sensationalized subject matter — as a dated, melodramatic morality play about the consequences of getting mixed up with the wrong crowd. And while Susan Hayward's Oscar-winning performance as fallen party-girl/petty con-artist Barbara Graham does go a little over-the-top in spots ("Damn you!" she shrieks at the press who won't leave her alone), at its core is a moving portrayal of regret, bravado, and fierce determination. The 1958 film — based on the true story of Graham, who was convicted of a brutal murder and sentenced to die in the gas chamber at California's San Quentin prison — is most effective in its second half, as director Robert Wise focuses on the realities of death row and institutional execution. Not even a documentary could get more up close and personal than Wise does; watching the prison guards methodically preparing sacks of cyanide capsules while Barbara desperately waits for a last-minute reprieve is a sobering reminder of what the death sentence is all about. It's especially potent when the condemned person is innocent, as the movie claims Barbara (who comes off as a mixture of Vivien Leigh's mischievous, flirtatious Scarlett O'Hara and Stockard Channing's jaded-but-tender-hearted Rizzo) is — in the end, I Want to Live! wants us to believe Barbara's just someone who was in the wrong place at the wrong time once too often. Hayward does an outstanding job in her quieter scenes, mixing sarcasm (her character's lifelong, gut-reaction defense mechanism) and sass with heartbreaking moments of vulnerability and pain, particularly in the moments between Barbara and her baby son. The movie truly belongs to her, although the supporting cast is strong. Keep an eye out for Theodore Bikel (who gained fame playing Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof on stage) as one of Barbara's sole supporters and Raymond Bailey ("The Beverly Hillbillies"' Mr. Drysdale) as the kindly San Quentin warden. MGM's I Want to Live! DVD shouldn't disappoint movie buffs. Cinematographer Lionel Lindon's stark black-and-white images make the transition to the small screen nicely in a matted transfer (1.66:1), and John Mandel's brassy, sexy jazz score makes the best possible use of the clear monaural Dolby Digital audio track. Extras include Spanish, French and English subtitles, and the original theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
—Betsy Bozdech

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