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The working title of the film was The Barbara Graham Story. A Hollywood Reporter news item indicated that the film title was changed due to low audience recognition of the Barbara Graham case. The following statement appears as a written prologue and epilogue before the opening and closing credits: "You are about to see (You have just seen...) a factual story. It is based on articles I wrote, other newspaper and magazine articles, court records, legal and private correspondence, investigative reports, personal interviews-and the letters of Barbara Graham. Edward S. Montgomery, Pulitzer Prize Writer, San Francisco Examiner."
The film was based on the life of Barbara Graham, who was indicted for the March 1953 murder of widow Mabel Monahan in Burbank, CA. On June 3, 1955, Graham, along with co-conspirators Emmett Perkins and John "Jack" Santo was put to death in San Quentin in the state's first triple execution. Graham was only the third woman to be put to death in California at that time. As depicted in the film, Graham had two last minute reprieves before she was finally executed in the gas chamber, still maintaining her innocence.
According to a biography of producer Walter Wanger, Wanger was drawn to the life of B-girl turned death row inmate Barbara Graham after meeting SFExaminer reporter Ed Montgomery and reading his collection of the most interesting criminal cases that he had covered. After the film's release, a controversy erupted over the declaration in the film by psychiatrist "Carl Palmberg" that Graham was left handed and the murder had been committed by someone right handed. Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Examiner March 1959 news items dispute the suggestion, publishing a facsimile of a police report filled out by Graham in which she indicated that she was right handed. Additional stories in Los Angeles area newspapers criticized the film for inaccuracies, such as Graham's assertion "I draw the line at dope," when the trial revealed her to be a known drug user. The film's depiction of a circus atmosphere surrounding the arrest of Graham and the others, was sharply contested by the L.A. police, who described the actual event as low key after they followed Graham from her meeting with a drug dealer.
Various news reports further condemned the film's producers for publicizing their use of journalist Montgomery's articles when, as a San Francisco-based reporter, he did not personally cover a single session of Graham's Los Angeles trial. As the film indicates, however, Montgomery's articles for the SFExaminer were essential in portraying Graham as morally reprehensible. For example, Montgomery's articles made much of the revelation during the trial that Graham had engaged in a lesbian relationship with a jail inmate who was offered a commuted sentence by the police if she would assist them in eliciting a confession from Graham. The film script's suggestion of lesbianism between Graham and "Rita" was strongly protested by the PCA and dropped, but the entrapment ploy remained otherwise accurately portrayed. In a contemporary interview, Montgomery asserted that the SF Examiner was interested in the Monahan murder trial primarily due to Santo's involvement, as he was known to have committed several crimes in Northern California. Montgomery also countered that he visited the trial weekly and rewrote another reporter's coverage for daily columns. After Graham's sentencing, Montgomery joined attorney Al Matthews in an attempt to save Graham from the gas chamber.
The same news reports critical of the film accused producer Walter Wanger of distorting Graham's story further by omitting characters critical to leading to her arrest and subsequent guilty verdict. Ex-convict and safe blowing expert Baxter Shorter testified to the police in late March 1953 that he participated in the robbery attempt at the Monahan house with Perkins, Santo, John True ("Bruce King" in the film) and a woman known as "Mary" who fit Graham's description and who was used primarily to gain access to the Monahan home. Shorter testified that he and another petty criminal, Billy Upshaw, had cased the Monahan residence for several weeks after they learned that the widow's former son-in-law, well known Las Vegas gambling figure Luther Scherer, occasionally visited and May have stored large amounts of money in a safe there. After this testimony, Shorter was kidnapped and never seen again and was presumed to have been murdered. Shorter's wife identified Perkins as one of her husband's kidnappers. John True, included in the film under another name, later turned state's evidence and reportedly gave testimony that corroborated that of Shorter, placing Graham at the crime scene, holding the gun used to beat Mrs. Monahan.
In answer to criticism against the film, Montgomery claimed that including Shorter in the film would have made it too long. In their testimony, both Shorter and True indicated that Perkins had tied a pillow case around the victim's head. A modern source claims that the Monahan autopsy report revealed that she died from strangulation, not from the injuries sustained by the severe beating. A March 1960 Los Angeles Times news item revealed that Graham purportedly confessed her participation in the Monahan murder to San Quentin Warden Harley Teets, who died in 1957, before the release of I Want to Live!. The film did not indicate that Graham underwent a religious transformation in prison, returning to her Catholic roots, but accurately portrayed her drawn out execution process.
Wanger's biography states that he initially sought Edward Dmytryk to direct the film, believing that as a member of the Hollywood Ten who had spent a year in prison on a contempt charge, Dmytryk would give the film an additional air of authenticity. The biography also states that after Wanger convinced Susan Hayward to play the lead role, she recommended Daniel Mann, who had directed her in the successful M-G-M 1955 production of I'll Cry Tomorrow. Wanger's biography mentions that other directors considered by the producer were Orson Welles, John Sturges and John Frankenheimer.
According to information contained in the file on the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, April 1958 correspondence between Wanger and PCA head Geoffrey Shurlock indicates that the Los Angeles Police Captain Sheldon ordered the department not to cooperate with the film's production because it implied that Graham May have been innocent. Further correspondence between Wanger and Shurlock indicates that several requests for changes in the script were not followed. In modern interviews, director Robert Wise revealed that he got the idea of filming the lengthy details of the preparation for the execution after talking at length with the priest to whom Graham confessed before her death. Wise gained permission to witness an execution in order to present the details in the film as correctly as possible.
Upon its release, I Want to Live! received powerful reviews. Although both Wanger and Wise denied the film intended to make a point, most critics and audiences accepted it for a strong condemnation of the death penalty. The Daily Variety review stated "In portraying Barbara Graham as innocent, (the film) is perhaps the most damning indictment of capital punishment ever presented in any entertainment medium," after calling it "one of the year's best pictures, and one that sets a milestone for boldness and realism." The Hollywood Reporter called it "one of the most harrowing and yet fascinating pieces of screen realism seen in recent years." New York Times praised Hayward's performance, stating "she's never done anything so vivid or so shattering to an audience's nerve." Hayward went on to win an Academy Award for Best Actress. The film also received Academy nominations for Best Cinematography (black and white), Best Director, Best Editor, Best Sound and Best Screenplay. In 1983 a television remake was broadcast, with Lindsay Wagner starring as Barbara Graham.