In 1958, while Miles Davis was furthering the art of jazz in film scoring in France, Johnny Mandel did his part in Hollywood, composing one of the all-time great jazz scores for I WANT TO LIVE! (The exclamation point is part of the title, not me over-emoting.) The film was Mandel’s first film score, at age 32, and starred Susan Hayward (in a savage, Oscar-winning performance) in the true-life story of prostitute and self-proclaimed “good-time girl” Barbara Graham, who was accused of murdering a woman during a botched robbery attempt and sentenced to death in the gas chamber in 1955. Though André Previn was originally asked to score the film, he was busy arranging Gershwin’s PORGY AND BESS for Otto Preminger, so he recommended Mandel instead.
Mandel’s score featured dramatic underscoring as well as original jazz numbers, featuring baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and a host of West Coast musicians, spawning two separate LPs. In addition to performance cues, Mulligan and his septet can be heard in numerous source cues on record players and on the radio.
The underscore broke from Hollywood tradition in that it was a 26-piece orchestra with no strings. Mandel’s music featured unusual instrument combinations and orchestrations for lesser-used instruments like the E-flat clarinet, contrabass clarinet, contrabassoon, bass trumpet, and bass flute. In the stakeout scene, Mandel used a battery of percussion—rhythm logs, cowbells, claves, scratcher, Chinese and Burmese gongs, bongos and conga drums—“to drive [the scene] forward to its conclusion,” explained Mandel in the soundtrack’s CD liner notes. “I was using the music as propulsive force, to speed up what you were seeing on the screen.”
For the death scene, Wise insisted on a musical background. “What I didn’t want to do is get very dramatic,” said Mandel. “When you see somebody die in a gas chamber, it’s not like being electrocuted; it’s more like the life seeping out of you as the cyanide takes over. It’s anticlimactic. I had to concoct something that felt like the scene looked. What you saw on the screen were clouds of smoke, so I used instruments weaving in and out of each other, creating an impressionistic texture.” Mandel used the piccolo in its bottom register to make “an eerie sound…almost like someone’s dying gasp.”
To help sell the picture, producer Walter Wanger wanted Mandel to compose a theme song. In a memo to Wanger, Wise wrote, “Considering the subject matter of our picture and the meaning of I WANT TO LIVE!, any lyric, no matter how well written, could not escape being in the worst possible taste. It makes no difference that it’s not used in the picture. It would work against every bit of reality and honesty that we’ve struggled so hard to get into the movie. An instrumental I WANT TO LIVE! theme is a must and Mandel certainly has plenty to draw on for that…and it can be a real hit. But, please, let’s not louse it all up now with a tasteless, cliché title song. Surely we have enough to sell the picture on without going to that extreme.”