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Five Minutes to Live

Five Minutes to Live(1961)

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Five Minutes to Live (1961)

After a shootout on the New Jersey waterfront in which two cops are killed, wanted criminal Johnny Cabot (Johnny Cash) flees to the West Coast and holes up with his girlfriend Doris (Midge Ware) in a cheap motel room in a sleepy California town. A sleazy local entrepreneur (Merle Travis) hooks Johnny up with Fred Dorella (Vic Tayback), a well known underworld figure, and the two men become partners in a scheme to rob the town bank. Their daring plan, based on a five minute holdup scenario that will net them $75,000, hinges on the direct involvement of bank executive Ken Wilson (Donald Woods) and his wife Nancy (Cay Forester), who becomes a pawn facing certain death in their deadly plot.

Five Minutes to Live (1961, aka Door to Door Maniac) is an obscure, no-budget crime thriller that is of particular interest now because it marks the dramatic film debut of country-western singer/songwriter Johnny Cash. Cast as a trigger-happy, guitar-playing psycho, it demonstrates why Cash didn't seriously pursue an acting career but, at the same time, his see-saw performance which goes from flat line readings to crazed, amphetamine-like behavior is fascinating to behold. In terms of intensity and effectiveness, Cash is more convincing than, say, Jack Nicholson in his dramatic debut as The Cry Baby Killer (1958), but not as consistently menacing as John Cassavetes' first sizable role as a sociopathic punk in The Night Holds Terror (1955). Still, with the right director and training, Cash might have become a first-rate actor but at least Five Minutes to Live offers us a glimpse of the young, wild and untamed Cash, willing to try anything once.

While on the surface Five Minutes to Live is a genre hybrid that fuses a bank heist thriller with a home invasion psychodrama, there is also an underlying critique of middle class conformity and suburbia in plain view. This jaundiced view of the status quo is expressed early in the film as Johnny looks out his motel window at his small town surroundings and says, "What a life! This suburb life ain't for me."

The dynamic in the husband-wife relationship between Ken and Nancy Wilson, a socially prominent couple in the community, is also not what it seems: Nancy's successful attempts to help her husband's career through networking and parties have a stifling effect on Ken, driving him to drink heavily and cheat on his wife. In fact, Ken is planning to run off to Las Vegas with his mistress Ellen (Pamela Mason) on the day of the robbery and, during the actual holdup when his wife's life is on the line, he actually dares the criminals to kill Nancy, freeing him to marry Ellen and start a new life. [Spoiler Alert] Events don't transpire as expected though and the movie fades out on a spectacularly unrealistic note with Ken and Nancy, happily reconciled and on their way to Las Vegas. It's a perfectly cynical kiss-off finish to this portrait of small town life and more disturbing than the sadistic antics of Cash's hyped-up sociopath. And all of it was probably unintentional on the part of the filmmakers who thought they were just making a drive-in exploitation film for a fast, profitable payoff.

Other than the presence of Cash in a key role, Five Minutes to Live lacks distinction in almost every other department. The cinematography by Carl E. Guthrie (House on Haunted Hill [1959]) is serviceable but uninspired and the direction by Bill Karn (Ma Barker's Killer Brood, [1960]) is poorly paced and often goes slack when it needs to be tense. The wildly uneven range of performances from the ensemble cast doesn't help matters either, though it is often entertaining for all the wrong reasons and includes Country Music Hall of Famer Merle Travis in an embarrassingly bad cameo as a bowling alley/bar owner. Little Ronnie Howard as Bobby, the victim's son, looks like he wandered in from an episode of The Andy Griffith Show and probably did; he can clearly be seen laughing in one scene where he is supposed to be huddled up against his mom in terror. And Donald Woods, who once showed promise in such films as A Tale of Two Cities [1935] and Anthony Adverse [1936], appears to be acting on auto-pilot and is emotionally remote in most of his scenes. Cay Forester, in the most demanding role as the terrorized housewife, however, has her moments, and Vic Tayback (the Emmy Award winning co-star of Alice and B-movies like T-Bird Gang [1959]) and Norma Varden (from Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train [1951]) as a gossiping busybody, are well cast.

In the end, the whole show is Cash and you'll want to rerun some of his more over-the-top scenes to savor the dialogue which might have actually been improvised by the "Man in Black." In one key scene where he forces Nancy into her bedroom and she nervously begins to make up the bed, he growls, "Leave it alone. I like a messy bed," and then attempts to rape her. In another scene he gleefully chases her around the kitchen/den, chuckling, "I ain't never had so much fun in a long time." And there's his famous assessment of the Wilson neighborhood which he sums up as "I never saw so much of nothin' in my life."

Cash would later admit that Five Minutes to Live was a career misstep: "I shouldn't have done it. My leadin' lady was the producer's wife." It would be years before he would again attempt a serious dramatic role in a feature film and A Gunfight (1971), in which he starred opposite Kirk Douglas, was a vast improvement over his debut film. But the real Johnny Cash is much better at playing himself and you can see proof of this in such concert films as Festival [1967] and The Nashville Sound [1970] and cameo appearances in such B-movie musicals as Hootenanny Hoot [1963] and The Road to Nashville [1967].

Five Minutes to Live was released in 1961 but quickly vanished from sight until 1966 when American-International re-titled and released it as Door to Door Maniac. It didn't fare any better in that version but it lives on today on YouTube and occasional revivals on television where Johnny Cash fans are continually amazed by its mere existence.

Producer: James Ellsworth
Director: Bill Karn
Screenplay: Cay Forester; Palmer Thompson (story); Robert Joseph (adaptation)
Cinematography: Carl E. Guthrie
Art Direction: Edward Shields
Music: Gene Kauer
Film Editing: Donald Nosseck
Cast: Johnny Cash (Johnny Cabot), Donald Woods (Ken Wilson), Cay Forester (Nancy Wilson), Pamela Mason (Ellen Harcourt), Vic Tayback (Fred Dorella), Ronnie Howard (Bobby), Merle Travis (Max), Midge Ware (Doris Johnson), Norma Varden (Priscilla),Leslie Kimmel (Mr. Johnson), Marge Waller (Secretary), Patricia Lynn (Gert), Frances Flower (Irma), Hanna Landy (Carol), Cynthia Flower (Girl Bowling), Max Manning (Pete), Fred Howard (Pop), Charles Buck (Bank Teller), Byrd Holland (Policeman).

by Jeff Stafford

Johnny Cash: He Walked the Line, 1923-2003 by Garth Campbell
Johnny Cash: The Biography by Michael Streissguth

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teaser Five Minutes to Live (1961)

Elvis Presley made the leap from recording artist and pop concert headliner to movie star by co-starring in the low-budget drama Love Me Tender in 1956, a kind of try-out that led to leading roles and hit movies built around his performance breaks. Fellow Sun Records alumnus Johnny Cash, a country artist who began in the rockabilly mode and crossed over to the pop charts with a few hits, never replicated that success but it wasn't from lack of trying. In addition to the usual rounds of TV variety shows and music programs, he guest starred in a couple of TV western shows and finally landed a role in a feature movie. But if Elvis made his debut in a modest little picture, it was still a real Hollywood production with actual movie stars, production values, and a big release with plenty of publicity. The grim crime thriller Five Minutes to Live was an independent film from a small production company with no stars and a director whose only big screen credit was titled Ma Barker's Killer Brood (1960).

Cash plays Johnny Cabot, a heist man on the lam after shooting a cop during a robbery. Cash had a sober, sullen image as a performer and brings that personality to the role of the brutal, borderline psychotic criminal. Vic Tayback, who later made his fame playing Mel the diner owner and short order cook in the movie Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974) and TV sitcom spin-off Alice, is Fred, the mastermind of bank robbery who enlists Johnny as his sole accomplice. As Johnny invades suburbia to take the wife (Cay Forester) of the bank vice president hostage, Fred works on the vice president (character actor Donald Woods) in the bank and gives Johnny his orders through phone calls placed every five minutes. Thus the film's title, Five Minutes to Live.

Shooting began in June, 1960, on a tiny budget of $100,000. Cash received a mere $700 a week for a two-week shoot and when production halted after running out of money, Cash invested $20,000 of his own money to complete the picture. Shooting resumed after a three month break and, according to Cash biographer Robert Hilburn, the singer's schedule had become so hectic by then that he was popping amphetamines at an alarming rate to keep going. The gaunt, hollow appearance in Cash's face jumps out in these scenes, a sharp contrast to just a few months earlier.

If he wasn't a natural screen actor, Cash was right at home with a guitar and his character kills time by strumming songs and singing a few verses. He wrote and performed the theme song for the credit sequence and he also sings it during the hostage sequence, taunting his captive with a threatening smile.

Apart from Cash, the most famous member in the cast is little Ronnie Howard as the couple's precocious son. He wasn't well known when the film went into production but by the time the film was released in 1961, the hit sitcom The Andy Griffith Show had debuted on TV. Pamela Mason, the wife of James Mason, took a supporting role as the other woman in the bank vice president's life. But it's Vic Tayback who delivers the most commanding performance in the film. Though his screen time is limited, he's all confidence and calculation as Fred.

Five Minutes to Live had its world premiere in 1960 to scathing reviews and went into release in 1961, generally playing on the bottom of double bills. In 1966 it was re-released by American International Pictures under the title Door-to-Door Maniac, reportedly with new footage added by producer Robert Lippert. The purely exploitative title did nothing to enhance Cash's film career - he starred in only one subsequent big screen feature, A Gunfight (1971), with Kirk Douglas - but it helped turn the film into a cult item, playing up the most lurid aspects of the thriller and Cash's role as an unstable crook with a psychotic edge.

Johnny Cash: The Life, Robert Hilburn. Little, Brown and Company, 2013.
Johnny Cash: The Biography, Michael Streissguth. Da Capo Press, 2006.
AFI Catalog of Feature Films
By Sean Axmaker

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