This is the story of Barbara Graham, party girl and petty criminal, who was charged, along with two men, in the March, 1953, real life slaying of Mabel Monohan, a wealthy and elderly widow who lived in Burbank, California. Technically, "I Want To Live" is a high quality production. It has excellent B&W photography, superb editing, a jazzy score; and, it features Susan Hayward's Oscar winning performance as Barbara Graham, a young woman portrayed as independent-minded, tough as nails, feisty, defiant, vulnerable, and a good mother.
Both at the beginning and at the end of this Robert Wise directed film the viewer is informed that the story is "factual". But the screenplay never delves into the actual "facts" of the murder. We don't learn anything about the victim, her relationships, the crime scene, or any of a thousand important details that must surely have surrounded this high profile case. Instead, the film focuses entirely on Graham, and goes out of its way to portray her as innocent, in the Monohan murder.
Even a cursory review of available literature suggests that the film, while "factual" in some respects, is fictional in others. For example, in reality, the police did not capture Graham and her two male friends in a warehouse at night, as the film portrays; they captured the three in a seedy apartment in daytime. The film omits her addiction to heroin. In more than one way, the film presents Graham sympathetically, and as a victim of the criminal justice system. There's an interesting story about the film's producer, and his motivations for making this film the way he did.
Nevertheless, I am not convinced, beyond a reasonable doubt, that she was guilty, mainly because I do not have access to the detailed "facts" of the Monohan case. After all these years, the truth regarding the murder has become cloudy, obscure.
It is the thick fog surrounding the real life case that makes the film's final thirty minutes so gut-wrenching, as we await Barbara Graham's fate. Suspense is heightened by a deadline-induced outcome that will either be black or white, all or nothing, but certainly not gray. In setting out to portray a woman wrongly accused of murder, the filmmakers have thus created an ending that is amazingly effective.
"I Want To Live" is a well made Hollywood production with riveting suspense. But keep in mind the film presents only the case for the defense, which may or may not be consistent with the truth.