Sunday, October 25, 2015

I Want to Live!

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

This 1958 film based on journalist Edward S. Montgomery’s coverage of prostitute-crook Barbara Graham’s life is probably one of the earliest feminist and anti-capital punishment movies.

Susan Hayward, in an Oscar winning role, portrays Graham. The acting may seem a little over-the-top to us now, but she does convincingly convey the toughness of this woman who can be seen as both a criminal and a victim. The opening scenes establish the world in which she inhabits, which is one where the acceptable rules of society are broken. It is one that flows far from the mainstream. There is a wild party taking place where there is excessive drinking of alcohol. A band plays jazz (definitely the alternative sound of the time), and the musicians share a joint. The camera angles are skewed, emphasizing the out-of-the ordinary lifestyles of those present. Barbara is first seen rising up from a bed in a slip, followed by the form of a man with whom she has slept for money. We see the family picture of her client. She goes out of her way to protect the man from being convicted of the Mann Act, which prosecuted men who took women across state lines for sexual purposes. Barbara says she paid for the room they used to lessen his involvement. Right from the start we see how she helps men get away with crimes.

The image of the bongo drums being played at the party are replaced by a judge’s gavel as Barbara is convicted of prostitution. She later is maneuvered into providing an alibi for some crooked male friends, and is convicted of perjury. She then falls in with some male criminals, and helps them fleece victims using her seductive abilities. She also drives their getaway car after robberies. There is a scene where one of the crooks is building a house of playing cards. It is symbolic of Barbara’s life, which comes tumbling down on her.

She tries to “get out” by getting married and having a child. But, her attempt to join the straight world is thwarted by her continued wrong choices involving men. She weds a junkie who drains her financially and emotionally. Another image of her failed attempt at living the normal life is depicted when we see her baby playing with poker chips. Desperately in need of cash, she leaves her child with the husband’s mother and joins up with the thieves again. When a woman associated with Barbara’s mob is killed by one of its members, the cops come to arrest the crooks. One of the gang members says she sold them out, and he beats Barbara before they are all arrested. More physical brutality at the hands of men is revealed when Barbara is examined in jail and cigarette burns are found on her body. The other convicts pin the murder on Barbara. Her cellmate, another woman looking for help from men, cuts a deal and frames Barbara by recommending a guy who will provide an alibi for a price. He turns out to be an undercover cop. Even her lawyer turns on her at this point, asking to be excused as her attorney. Her husband’s drugged state of mind prevents him from being an alibi at the time of the killing.

Although she has been railroaded, Barbara doesn’t help her situation because she is insulting and uncooperative to everybody. But her attitude shows her unwillingness to accept the unjust situation she is in. Even though she is labeled a “party girl” and considered a slut, she embraces her sexuality when she refuses to wear the prison pajamas, and wants to feel sexy in her black slip. She strips down and says she would rather be naked than wear the drab sleepwear. Her dual nature of being tough and wanting to have a family is emphasized by her wanting to keep her daughter’s stuffed toy, which happens to be a tiger, showing the sweet and dangerous sides of Barbara.

A few men are on her side. There is a psychiatrist who says she is not violent. He also points out that she is left-handed and the killing was most likely done by someone who led with the right hand. The police also refused to allow Barbara to take a lie detector test, which would have helped her defense. The journalist, Montgomery (Simon Oakland), on whose writings the film is based, changed from one who exploited Barbara’s story, to becoming one of her supporters. When someone questions whether she may have been framed by the male convicts for the murder, a prison worker says, “What was she doing shacking up with them in the first place.” That statement shows the sexist discrimination involved in Barbara’s conviction. It’s as if she was condemned because of her sexual activity rather than for convincingly being found to have committed murder.

There are two women who present mirror images of how Barbara’s life could have gone. Her party friend, Peg (Virginia Vincent) left the fast lane world and married and had kids. She becomes part of the community. But, it is still the husband who calls the shots, giving her permission to see her old pal in prison. The other woman works at the prison, and her other-side-of-the-coin existence is stressed because her name is Barbara, too. Even she says, paradoxically, that the only way to live with men is being separated or divorced from them.

Besides the story arguing against the death penalty by showing an innocent person executed, the film presents the agonizing process the inmate must endure as she is led numerous times to the gas chamber only to get last minute reprieves, with no true hope of a commutation of the death sentence. The process of preparing the chamber for the dropping of the cyanide into buckets of sulfuric acid is presented in chilling detail, making the activity feel like a premeditated act of killing. The San Quentin Captain tells Barbara, “When you hear the pellets drop, count to ten. Take a deep breath. It’s easier that way.” Her damning response to this executioner is, “How would you know?” The cyanide is shaped in the form of eggs, ironically showing that the objects which appear to represent the beginnings of life are, in the hands of an unjust system, tools to end it.

The next movie is North by Northwest.

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