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By Phil Hall | July 20, 2007

BOOTLEG FILES 190: “Five Minutes to Live” (1961 cheapo thriller starring Johnny Cash as a deranged killer).

LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm the last public screening of this title.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Only on public domain dupes.

REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: Obscure, orphaned movie.

CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: It fell into the ring of public domain fire.

Relatively few singers have been able to make the leap into long-term movie stardom, and those who do usually wind up playing variations of their well-established music personas. Let’s face it, Dean Martin the movie star is the same persona as Dean Martin the singer – and so is Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton.

In very few cases, a singer-turned-actor is able to shuck off that established persona and inhabit a character completely removed from their own personality. The most notable examples here would be a pair of Frank Sinatra star-turns (“From Here to Eternity” and “The Man with the Golden Arm”), Peggy Lee in “Pete Kelly’s Blues,” Diana Ross in “Lady Sings the Blues” and Cher in “Moonstruck.”

Then there’s the case of Johnny Cash in the 1961 movie “Five Minutes to Live.” In his first acting role, Cash jettisoned his music persona and took on the roll of a deranged killer who holds a woman hostage during a bizarre extortion plot. Yes, Johnny Cash may have fashioned himself as an “outlaw,” but he never stooped to embracing a criminal demeanor.

Unfortunately, “Five Minutes to Live” was something of a mess that never launched Cash into movie stardom. That’s a shame, because the Man in Black wasn’t such a bad actor. In fact, had he chosen a better starring vehicle, he could’ve enjoyed a niche in movies.

“Five Minutes to Live” finds Cash playing Johnny Cabot, a New Jersey hoodlum with an itchy trigger finger. How a New Jersey hoodlum wound up with an Arkansas drawl is not explained, but never mind. He’s responsible for killing two cops in a warehouse and he leaves the Garden State for middle America, hiding out in a cheap motel with a dumb floozy that he later guns down after he grows tired of her.

Johnny Cabot hooks up with Fred Porella, a sleazy miscreant who boasts a New Jersey accent. How he wound up in middle America with a New Jersey accent is not explained either. He’s played by Vic Tayback, who later enjoyed some fame as Mel the diner owner in the sitcom “Alice.” Fred and Johnny cook up a wacky plot involving the Wilsons, a local prominent couple. Mr. Wilson is a bank vice president and Mrs. Wilson is a big wheel in the local women’s club. In the plan, Johnny will take Mrs. Wilson hostage while Fred extorts $70,000 from Mr. Wilson’s bank in exchange for Mrs. Wilson’s life.

Unknown to the crooks, the Wilsons are not a happy couple. Mrs. Wilson is something of a bitch and Mr. Wilson is a heavy drinker with a mistress. His mistress has an English accent, and it’s never explained how this Englishwoman wound up in middle America (the mess of accents offers some interesting distractions). Any way, Johnny is able to gain entry to the Wilson home by posing as a door-to-door salesman of guitar lessons (which, of course, is something every housewife in middle America wants). Once inside, he turns psychotic and terrorizes Mrs. Wilson by breaking her porcelain knick-knacks, forcing her to wear a sexy negligee, and singing to her the tune “Five Minutes to Live.” He also insinuates a desire to rape her, but he never gets to that stage (Johnny Cash may walk the line, but he certainly won’t cross it).

Needless to say, Mr. Wilson is surprised when Fred turns up with his extortion plan. Having Mrs. Wilson killed would actually solve his problems – Mr. Wilson was planning to leave town with his mistress and start a new life in Las Vegas.

So…will Mr. Wilson let Mrs. Wilson get killed by a guitar-strumming maniac? Will Fred get his bag full of $70,000 and run off? And what about the annoying Priscilla, who keeps calling Mrs. Wilson during this hostage crisis with inane information on the PTA? Priscilla is played by veteran British character actress Norma Varden, which adds to the accent confusion.

“Five Minutes to Live” was actually not constructed as a Johnny Cash vehicle. Instead, it was meant to resurrect the career of Cay Forrester, who plays Mrs. Wilson. Forrester had been in films for two decades but never rose above the status of bit player – in fact, many of her performances were so brief that she received no screen credits. Forrester tried to re-energize her career by writing the screenplay for this film, but her tin-eared dialogue and sluggish plot lines made “Five Minutes to Live” seem like a five-hour ordeal. (Her acting was also fairly embarrassing.) This was her first and last attempt at screenwriting, and it was her only starring role – after this film, she was back in bit parts.

But what about Johnny Cash? Surprisingly, he is effective as the killer. With his ghostly voice, heavy-lidded stoic gaze and a genuinely intimidating physical presence, Cash looks and sounds right for the part. But Forrester’s silly screenplay and the lethargic direction from B-Movie hack Bill Karn works against him. Watching the film, you want Cash to go further and deeper, but the film pulls its punches and never allows the character to truly explore his psychotic depths. It’s a shame, because it is a genuinely original concept and a nicely off-beat performance.

“Five Minutes to Live” is also notable for an early performance by seven-year-old Ron Howard. Playing the Wilsons’ son, Howard was a precocious child who is able to squeeze a few laughs from the obnoxious whining of a little boy who hates oatmeal and wants a new baseball uniform. It’s a nothing part, but the kid has fun with it.

“Five Minutes to Live” was independently produced and distributed to the grindhouse and drive-in circuit by Sutton Pictures, a small exploitation company. In 1966, American International Pictures snagged the rights, retitled it “Door-to-Door Maniac,” and put it back in the grindhouse and drive-in theaters. The copyright to the film eventually lapsed and was not renewed and the film has been in the public domain for years. But even with its PD status, “Five Minutes to Live” is not a ubiquitous title and relatively few PD labels carry it. The copy I picked up (at a Walgreen’s for $1.00) had a slightly blurry visual quality, as if it was videotaped from a TV broadcast years ago.

As for Johnny Cash, he didn’t try to act again until the 1971 Western “A Gunfight.” In 1973, he was the on-screen narrator and the behind-the-camera driving force for what is perhaps his most famous movie contribution: “Gospel Road,” a well-intended but campy tribute to the Man from Nazareth. That film gave us the John Denver tune “Follow Me” and the unlikely sight of Cash’s wife, June Carter Cash, playing Mary Magdalene.

If Johnny Cash was never a satisfactory film star, it’s okay. His greatness as a singer more than compensates for the squandered potential displayed in “Five Minutes to Live.”

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at
Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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