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 ) is serviceable but uninspired and the direction by Bill Karn (Ma Barker's Killer Brood, ) 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  and Anthony Adverse , 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 ) and Norma Varden (from Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train ) 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  and The Nashville Sound  and cameo appearances in such B-movie musicals as Hootenanny Hoot  and The Road to Nashville .
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
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