Thursday, February 28, 2008

Die, b*tch, die!

TCM is airing I Want to Live!, February 29 at noon ET. Susan Hayward won the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Barbara Graham, who was convicted and sentenced to the gas chamber for her part in the murder of a wealthy widow.

Unfortunately, however, that's about the best thing I can say about the movie. It's unbelievably propagandistic, with director Robert Wise doing everything in her power to turn viewers against the death penalty. Graham is made to look like a helpless victim of circumstance, who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time; the media are depicted as bloodthirsty harpies out to get somebody so that they can get their story; and the legal system is portrayed as unfeeling. No chance is given for those who believe Graham might actually have been guilty to have their case put fairly.

To complete the farce, Wise spends a substantial amount of time at the end of the movie focusing on Graham's execution. Not the hours leading up to it, the way we see James Cagney in Angels with Dirty Faces. While that side of the execution is covered, I'm talking about the technical side of execution in the gas chamber -- we see how the executioner check to make certain that the poison gas will dissolve, checks the chamber itself, and so on. It's done in lurid detail, with the only detail missing being that of Graham's face being contorted as she dies in presumed agony: the folks administering the Production Code would never have gone for that.

The funny thing is, before watching I Want to Live!, I was opposed to the death penalty: I don't trust the State with the amount of power necessary to make such life-and-death decisions. (For the record, I still do oppose the death penalty, and for the same reasons. The movie didn't do anything to make me favor capital punishment.) Yet as I was watching the final execution scenes of this movie, I found myself yelling, "Die, b*tch, die!" at the screen. We get the point already.

Since I already opposed capital punishment before seeing this movie, I can't really say whether it works as effective propganda, although I'd say it probably shouldn't because it's so blatant and ham-fisted in the message it's trying to put out. Hayward does a capable job of portraying Graham the way Wise wanted her shown, but I don't know if this was really the best acting performance of the year. But watch and judge for yourself. I Want to Live! is available on DVD, in case you miss TCM's showing.

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