The film earned six Oscar nominations, with Hayward winning a Best Actress Oscar at the 31st Academy Awards.
The film tells the story of the life and execution of Barbara Graham (Hayward), a prostitute and convicted perjurer. Graham is the product of a broken home, and works luring men into fixed card games. At one point, she attempts to go straight but marries the "wrong man," and has a child. He is a drug addict and she ends their relationship.
When her life falls apart, she returns to her former professions and becomes involved with a man who had murdered a woman. The police arrest them, and her companions accuse her of the murder to reduce their own chances of going to the gas chamber. She claims her innocence, but is convicted and executed.
The film earned a net profit of $2,455,570.
When the film was released, Variety magazine gave the film a favorable review: "There is no attempt to gloss the character of Barbara Graham, only an effort to understand it through some fine irony and pathos. She had no hesitation about indulging in any form of crime or vice that promised excitement on her own, rather mean, terms... Hayward brings off this complex characterization. Simon Oakland, as Montgomery, who first crucified Barbara Graham in print and then attempted to undo what he had done, underplays his role with assurance.
Film critic Bosley Crowther liked the film and wrote, "...Miss Hayward plays it superbly, under the consistently sharp direction of Robert Wise, who has shown here a stunning mastery of the staccato realistic style. From a loose and wise-cracking B-girl she moves onto levels of cold disdain and then plunges down to depths of terror and bleak surrender as she reaches the end. Except that the role does not present us a precisely pretty character, its performance merits for Miss Hayward the most respectful applause."
Gene Blake, the reporter who covered the actual murder trial for the Los Angeles Daily Mirror, called the movie "a dramatic and eloquent piece of propaganda for the abolition of the death penalty."
By March 1959, Billboard noted that the popularity of the film and of Mandel's and Mulligan's albums "prompted a rush of jazz film scores", and cited the signing of Duke Ellington to do the score for that year's Anatomy of a Murder, the release of The Five Pennies (a biopic about the jazz band leader Red Nichols), and a 1960 documentary Jazz on a Summer's Day.
In 2009, the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that eleven out of eleven reviews of the film were positive.
WinsNew York Film Critics Circle Awards: NYFCC Award, Best Actress, Susan Hayward; 1958.
Academy Awards: Oscar, Best Actress in a Leading Role, Susan Hayward; 1958.
Golden Globes: Golden Globe, Best Motion Picture Actress - Drama, Susan Hayward; 1959
Mar del Plata Film Festival: Best Actress, Susan Hayward; 1959.
NominationsDirectors Guild of America: DGA Award, Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures, Robert Wise; 1959.
Academy Awards: Oscar, Best Cinematography, Black-and-White, Lionel Lindon; Best Director, Robert Wise; Best Film Editing, William Hornbeck; Best Sound, Gordon E. Sawyer (Samuel Goldwyn SSD); Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium. Nelson Gidding and Don Mankiewicz; 1958.
Golden Globes: Golden Globe, Best Motion Picture - Drama; Best Motion Picture Director, Robert Wise; 1959.
Grammy Awards: Grammy, Best Soundtrack Album, Dramatic Picture Score or Original Cast, Johnny Mandel; 1959.
Writers Guild of America: WGA Award (Screen), Best Written American Drama, Nelson Gidding and Don Mankiewicz; 1959.
British Academy of Film and Television Arts: BAFTA Film Award, Best Foreign Actress, Susan Hayward; 1960.
Other honors The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2008: AFI's 10 Top 10:
Nominated Courtroom Drama Film
The film score was composed, arranged and conducted by Johnny Mandel, but the picture also featured jazz themes performed by Gerry Mulligan's Jazz Combo, and two soundtrack albums were released on the United Artists label in 1958.
Allmusic's Stephen Cook noted, "Johnny Mandel's I Want to Live soundtrack works both as high-end mood music and swinging jazz. ...the most intriguing cuts are those that seamlessly combine jazz, Latin percussion, and strains of Max Steiner's dramatically moody soundtracks ...And as far as murky ambience goes, he delivers some of the best (next to Mancini) ...To help navigate the vast terrain, Mandel enlists a cadre of top West Coast players like trumpeter Jack Sheldon, trombonist Frank Rosolino, reed player Bill Holman, bassist Red Mitchell, and drummer Shelly Manne. And topping off Mandel's original score, ... Gerry Mulligan and Art Farmer's combo interpretations of a handful of Mandel's original themes from the movie (Mulligan and company appear in the movie's bar scenes). One of the best jazz-inspired soundtracks around".
I Want to Live! was remade for television in 1983. It featured Lindsay Wagner, Martin Balsam, Pamela Reed, Harry Dean Stanton, Dana Elcar, Ellen Geer, Robert Ginty and Barry Primus.