Most of us have what in common parlance is known as baggage. If you were to rummage through mine, you’d come across a few reels of film. Moving images that get pushed around like a burden too heavy to carry, celluloid that somehow came to deposit itself under the by now leathery skin of my much travelled case. One such movie, to me, is Robert Wise’s I Want to Live (1958). Few moments in film made a greater impression on me than Susan Hayward’s final scenes in this hysterical nightmare of a melodrama, which I first saw when I was a child of seven or eight (we have so few accurate records for experiences such as watching television).
I was staying with my grandmother who saw it fit to sit me in front of the tube all day, flicking between the two available channels, and letting me “gorge and guzzle” like an Augustus Gloop picking the plate of Mike Teavee until I had to be taken back to my parents after developing a fever from the exposure to all those images flashing before me. I have not watched I Want to Live since. Since last night, that is.
Violent and brash, I Want to Live is hardly what you might call family fare; here in Britain, it still carries an advisory label suggesting the age of fifteen as the appropriate time for exposure. How terrifying it was for me, the boy I still know, to witness the execution of a human being, the slow death by poison staged with minute precision. There was that phone that would not ring, that call that would not come. After all these years, I was convinced it would be ringing, after all, if only too late to save the life of Barbara Graham (played by Susan Hayward, pictured above).
As I said, I had not seen this film since that first time. Along the way, I heard it mentioned, gradually realizing it to be an iconic picture, a title in scarlet lettering, the kind of incendiary pulp to which the likes of me are drawn. I knew early on what “the likes of me” were; but I was as yet unfamiliar with the secret language shared among my kind, something understood.
Years later, living in New York, I caught a rerun of the Golden Girls, the sitcom to which I, a non-immigrant German studying in the US, owed much of my colloquial English. There was Sophia Petrillo, locking herself up in the bathroom, upset that her daughter Dorothy does not approve of her wedding (to her Jewish boyfriend, Max Weinstock). The caterer storms in, overhearing the reconciliation of elderly mother and grown-up child. “This is more moving,” he breaks out, “than Susan Hayward’s climactic speech in I Want to Live.” “You’re ready to fly right out of here,” sneers Dorothy’s roommate Blanche at the sight of this Pangbornian display. “Well, excuse me for living, Anita Bryant!” the insulted caterer fires back.
I am with the caterer. In fact, I have been with the caterers since I was about five. Perhaps, this is why I responded so strongly then to what the film claims to be a wrongful sentencing, the incarceration and sacrificing of an exuberant outcast. Not that I am trying to hand out psychoanalytic cheese puffs here.
Still, it was strange to revisit Graham’s final moments last night, so many decades later, seeing myself watching an old movie, still recognizing that boy. What was my grandmother thinking? It struck me that this was the woman who, years later, told me that she knew about the concentration camps and the gassing of the Jews. The same woman who refused to talk to or correspond with me after it had become clear that I was to remain a caterer and would never have that wedding. There she sat with me, watching a woman going into the gas chamber. Was she reminded of the many deaths she had condoned? Was there a secret chamber of her heart into which no poison could rush? Would she have turned the switch on me and my pink triangular kind?
As if any underscoring of such melodramatic excesses were needed, Graham went out with a bang. Not just metaphorically. The lamp of our movie projector (one of those $500 bulbs) imploded just before she was led to that chamber. There won’t be any screenings for a while, except for those pictures that keep flickering on the back of my eyelids, reels in the baggage to be pushed around until it is time for me to push off . . .