Barbara Graham is a woman with dubious moral standards, often a guest in seedy bars. She has been sentenced for some petty crimes. Two men she knows murder an older woman. When they get caught they start to think that Barbara has helped the police arresting them. As a revenge they tell the police that Barbara is the murderer.
My heart bleeds for you. How can I help you Inspector, buy a few tickets to the policemen's ball?
Right from the off there's a realistic feel to the film that immediately draws you in. Be it the characters being acted out so deftly, or the whole composition of director Robert Wise's work, it's quite something and sets the viewer up a treat. It somehow manages to put you in there with Barbara Graham so as to make you feel all the emotions that Graham herself feels.
The plot is based around the murky life of Barbara Graham and the subsequent trial that would culminate in her execution, all of which is decidedly dark and troubling. Broken home upbringing (merely alluded to here) right through drugs, perjury, prostitution, shilling, robbery and ultimately murder? It's all in there, yet why does the viewer feel complete sympathy with Barbara? Could it be that she is portrayed as a victim of society? Or merely that it's just so shattering watching this woman get knocked from pillar to post at every turn? Either way the film is a triumph of a character piece, an explosive look at the destruction of one woman's hopes and dreams, a murky peek at the impact that the press can have on such trials, as they turn them into national parties and the accused into national stars.
As a criminal biography it is handled adroitly, maybe too much so? For the makers here hint at Graham actually being innocent, and yet nothing substantial is offered up so a to put meat on the bones of such a hint. Other than Graham's own repeated claims of innocence, it's just comes off as a daft slant for the film to aim for, especially since any research into the real life case leads you to finding her out as being guilty anyway. It's a minor complaint though, hell most of my favourite films of all time are historically twisted, and since so much is great and right with the film it would be churlish of me to not advocate it as a must see for anyone remotely interested in classic film history.
Susan Hayward gives a faultless display as Graham, she nails every emotional tick of the human condition. Her feisty shows are a pure delight, whilst her scenes of heartbreak and bewilderment look genuine and are up with the best in classic film. Oh yes the academy got this one right, a long overdue Oscar for Susan Hayward. She took on a lot of edgy roles in her career, a great actress for sure. The academy simply found it impossible to ignore such a layered masterclass back in 1958. The rest of the cast are splendid, and I would be doing a disservice if I didn't mention the wonderful jazz arrangement from Johnny Mandel (well done Gerry Mulligan) that tones in perfect with the film's sizzles and sadness.
It looks and sounds fantastic and holds you enthral from the first reel right through to the last. And what a final reel, where come the denouement you may find yourself holding your breath along with Barbara herself. A truly superb piece of film making. 9/10
United Artists, Figaro by Robert Wise, Nelson Gidding, Don Mankiewicz, Ed Montgomery, Barbara Graham.
Stars: Susan Hayward, Simon Oakland, Virginia Vincent, Theodore Bikel.
Genres: Biography, Crime, Drama, Film-Noir
Keywords: death penalty death row biography
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