In 1958 Susan Hayward appeared as convicted murderess Barbara Graham in the sensational biopic I WANT TO LIVE! directed by Robert Wise. The performance earned Hayward the Oscar for best actress, and it spawned other films about women on death row. Some of the later films were made-up hokum, though Wise’s story which aims to tell the truth and advocate the idea that capital punishment should be abolished in America, probably contains its share of fictional elements, too.
It was just two years later when Terry Moore decided to make her own picture in a similar vein. She’d not only star in, but produce, a low-budget entry called WHY MUST I DIE?, which would be director Roy Del Ruth’s final assignment. Moore recruited friend Debra Paget to costar in the saga that seemed like a cross between cheap soap opera and exploitation drama. It was to be released by American International Pictures.
In Moore’s version, there is no ambiguity about her character’s innocence. We see how she has been framed by Paget who committed the offense warranting a death sentence. Somehow Paget has gone undetected by police, and Moore is arrested, tried and convicted. As she sits in the slammer and awaits her execution, WHY MUST I DIE? borrows key scenes from I WANT TO DIE!
There are the obligatory scenes with the doomed woman slowly resigning herself to her fate. The scenes where she receives counsel from clergy. And of course the scenes where she is led off to the gas chamber. But because she is innocent, and the film seeks to give viewers a happy ending, Paget’s bad girl decides to confess, just as Moore is being strapped into the chair. It becomes a matter of whether the innocent but tawdry woman’s life will be spared.
The titles of these films are interesting. Obviously, we are not going to get I WANT TO DIE! or WHY MUST I LIVE?, unless she was suicidal and her death sentence was actually a death wish. That might have made a less predictable story.