Monday, March 24, 2008

The Jazz Score on I Want to Live!

Great movies with great music. That is what the MoMA’s Jazz Score retrospective series will be offering. I have taught many of these pictures in my jazz film class and will be previewing most closer to their MoMA run, but in light of Eliot Spitzer’s legal problems, Robert Wise’s I Want to Live! (trailer here) is unexpectedly timely now. An early, pivotal scene of Live takes on added relevance for referencing the Mann Act, which prohibits trafficking women across state lines, as is now well known to New York State residents.

Based on the actual criminal case of Barbara Graham (a.k.a. “Bloody Babs”), Live is sanitized to strongly suggest her innocence of the crime that sent her to the gas chamber. It features a fantastic jazz score composed by Johnny Mandel and performances by an all-star combo of Gerry Mulligan on baritone, Art Farmer on trumpet, Pete Jolly on piano, Frank Rosolino on trombone, Bud Shank on alto, Red Mitchell on Bass, and Shelley Manne on drums, who are even listed in the opening credit sequence. (Different artists recorded Mandel’s large ensemble themes.) One tune, “Black Nightgown,” would later become part of the band book for Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band.

Graham, euphemistically called things like a “goodtime girl,” is first seen on screen sitting up in bed after perhaps some exertion. It is a great shot—perhaps the best entrance since Harry Lime in The Third Man. Shortly thereafter, vice comes knocking. “Now c’mon, let’s not make a federal case out of it,” says her “friend.” “It is a federal case—ever hear of the Mann Act?” chastises the flatfoot. However, Graham has seen a picture of her client’s family in his wallet and takes the fall for him. She thereby establishes her credentials as a “you-know-what” with a heart of gold and earns her first stint behind bars.

Even though Live completely sides with Graham, she still comes across as a difficult person to embrace. Susan Hayward plays Graham with complete conviction, for which she received her only Academy Award. It also boasts great supporting work from decidedly unglamorous character actors, like Simon Oakland as Ed Montgomery, the journalist who first demonizes Graham and then rallies to her defense. A note signed by Montgomery at the beginning and end of the film claims the screenplay was based on his stories and other primary sources.

In a twist of fate, Gerry Mulligan was sentenced on a drug charge by the same judge who condemned Graham to death, Charles W. Fricke. In his Chet Baker biography, Deep in a Dream, James Gavin writes:

“Fricke treated Mulligan kindly. When the saxophonist testified that the household pot was all his, the judge leaned over and whispered, ‘Son, you don’t want to say that.’ He ended up ignoring the marijuana charge but gave Mulligan six months in prison for possession of heroin—a light penalty, given the harshness of L.A.’s drug laws.” (p. 72)

Live might have taken factual liberties to support its indictment of the death penalty, but it is compelling cinema—one of the best examples of vérité-style film noir, with great music throughout. The entire I Want to Live! experience does offer up two object lessons Client Nine would have benefited from. First, pick up your “goodtime girls” after you arrive on a trip and not before you leave. Secondly, if a judge tells you to shut up, you should stop talking. It screens at the MoMA April 20th and 30th.