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True story of the small-time lady crook who fought to escape the gas chamber.
In 1950 San Francisco, vivacious petty criminal Barbara Ward is caught by the vice squad in a hotel room with a married man who brought her over the state line. To prevent the man's arrest, Barbara willingly accepts a misdemeanor solicitation charge. After serving a brief jail term, Barbara returns to her hometown of San Diego and resumes a life of revelry with her best friend, Peg. One evening, two friends from San Francisco visit Barbara to plead with her to provide them with an alibi for a robbery they committed. Nervous about their continual brushes with the law, Peg tells Barbara she cannot continue with their lifestyle and the friends part amicably. Barbara provides the men with a false alibi, but soon after is convicted of perjury and sentenced to a year in prison. Upon her release, Barbara returns to soliciting and passing bad checks. One evening, bartender Henry "Hank" Graham tips Barbara off to an undercover policeman at his bar, then later introduces the grateful, unemployed Barbara to an acquaintance, thief Emmett Perkins. Perkins offers Barbara a steady job as his "shill," bringing in unsuspecting men to fleece at his gambling parlor. After she has earned a sizeable salary, Barbara quits Perkins to marry Hank, entering into her third marriage, intending to leave her life of criminality behind. A year later, Barbara and Hank have an infant son named Bobby, but quarrel frequently over Hank's drug habit, which has cost him his job. Nearly destitute, Barbara throws Hank out. A few days later, when Barbara is threatened with eviction, she leaves Bobby with her mother and returns to Perkins, who is now in league with John Santo and Bruce King. One evening, Barbara is followed to Perkins' warehouse hideout by the police, who are accompanied by San Francisco newspaper reporter Ed Montgomery. The police surround the building, demanding Perkins, Santo and Barbara surrender individually. Despite being beaten by Santo, Barbara brashly surrenders, her defiant attitude captured by the newspapers and embellished by Ed's stories in the days following. Barbara weathers a tough interrogation, yet is stunned when the police accuse her of involvement with Perkins and Santo in the murder of Burbank matron Mabel Monahan. Despite Barbara's insistence that on the night of the murder she was home with her husband and child, she is indicted by a grand jury. Peg, now married and the mother of two small children, visits Barbara and offers to help with Bobby. Attorney Richard C. Tibrow is assigned Barbara's case and tells her that until Hank is located, Barbara has no credible alibi. Despondent, Barbara accepts the offer of jail mate Rita to buy a phony alibi from a friend. Barbara meets Rita's acquaintance, Ben Miranda, and the pair concocts a story covering the night of the murder. Miranda repeatedly demands to know where Barbara really was in order to protect himself, but she insists that she was at home. When Miranda threatens to call off the deal, Barbara admits that she was with Perkins and Santo. In court, King testifies under immunity that Barbara pistol-whipped Mrs. Monahan during a robbery attempt. In his testimony, Miranda reveals that he is an undercover policeman who set up Barbara to elicit a confession. The district attorney then plays a tape recording made by Miranda during his visit to Barbara detailing her attempt to buy an alibi and confession of being at the murder scene. Despite this shock, under questioning Barbara maintains her innocence and asserts that she used Miranda out of fear of the death penalty. After Barbara's perjury conviction is revealed, Hank takes the stand and refutes her alibi. Barbara, Perkins and Santo are found guilty. When Tibrow withdraws due to illness he is replaced by Al Matthews, who learns that no new trial is possible despite the police's questionable use of Miranda. After Barbara and the others are sentenced to death, Barbara is transferred to Corona prison to await her execution date and is placed in isolation where she refuses to wear prison garb and demands a radio. Remaining on Barbara's case for her appeal, Al brings her to psychologist Carl Palmberg in hopes of having the psychologist administer a lie detector test to Barbara. Convinced that he has been wrong in condemning Barbara, Ed joins Carl and Al to help prevent her execution. After speaking at length with Barbara, Carl believes that while she is completely amoral, she has a strong aversion to violence and points out that she is left-handed and the crime was committed by someone right-handed. Al is exuberant about Carl's report, and Ed writes a sympathetic series detailing Barbara's life. As the execution date draws near, Barbara vacillates between anxiety and despair, writing long letters to Carl, Ed and Peg. On the same day that Peg brings Bobby for a visit, a Supreme Court stay comes through, giving Barbara hope that her sentence may be commuted. Soon after, however, she receives the devastating news that Carl has died from heart disease. When Al's petition for a new trial is denied, an execution date is set. The day prior to her execution, a resigned Barbara struggles to maintain a brave attitude upon her transfer to San Quentin. As the prison prepares to put Barbara, Perkins and Santo to death by gas, Barbara meets with a priest to make her confession. Later that night, Barbara is livid upon overhearing a radio report that several couples are interested in adopting Bobby. As dawn approaches, Barbara sits with a friendly prison nurse and wistfully describes a fictitiously happy marriage with Hank, then requests an ice cream sundae as part of her last meal. The prison staff continues the gassing preparations, but forty-five minutes before Barbara's scheduled execution, the governor declares a stay, prompting a mixture of relief and dismay from a strained Barbara. In less than half an hour, however, Al's writ is denied and the execution ordered to proceed. Despite her tension, Barbara dresses stylishly with dangling earrings and high heels, which she is allowed to wear into the gas chamber. Inside the chamber, as Barbara glimpses a multitude of reporters through the glass, the phone rings and another stay is declared to hear Al's amended writ. Collapsing beneath frayed nerves, Barbara is partially carried back to her cell pleading to know why she is being tortured. Everyone waits tensely for several minutes, but the writ is rejected and Barbara's execution is again ordered to proceed immediately. Barbara demands a mask, unwilling to see the reporters' faces again and is guided into the gas chamber, strapped into the chair and put to death by gas. As Ed despondently leaves the prison, Al drives up and presents him with a note from Barbara thanking him for all his efforts on her behalf.
Cast & Crew
|MPAA Ratings:||Premiere Info:||New York opening: 18 Nov 1958|
|Release Date:||1958||Production Date:||
EB; AFI Library; AFI
|Color/B&W:||Black and White||Distributions Co:||United Artists Corp.|
|Sound:||Mono (Westrex Recording System)||Production Co:||Figaro, Inc.|
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User Ratings & Review
You know it's kind of a shame that, newspaper reporter Montgomery didn't witness the beating and strangulation of the crippled Mabel Monahan....
One of the Great Performances in Film History
My comments here were inspired by some criticisms I have read online about Susan Hayward's performance in I Wanna Live. To me Susan Hayward was right...
Isn't it fascinating, everyone in this film is so sympathetic to Barbara with the exception of those low down police and the DA office. No one and I...