Wednesday, September 11, 2013

5 Minutes to Live (USA, 1961)

(Spoilers.) If we are to believe the article found in the Saturday, 21 January 1961 issue of the Toledo Ohio Blade, the movie seems to be the end result of a wife's need for occupational therapy: Bel-Air housewife Mrs. Ludlow Flower Jr., aka Cay Forester, a former actress found mostly in B-films (such as Queen of the Amazons [1947 / full movie], Strange Impersonation [1946 / full movie], Blonde Savage [1947] and the classic noir D.O.A. [1950 / trailer / full movie]), asked for and received the permission of her husband, real estate executive Ludlow Flower Jr, to write a movie; by dinnertime that day she had the plot, and six months later 5 Minutes to Live was finished and ready to be made.* And once the film actually went into production — produced by hubby Ludlow Flower Jr — Mrs. Ludlow Flower Jr. even ended up taking over the main female role, thus returning to drive-in screens after a ten-year absence as the third headlining star behind the lead credit of "Johnny Cash as Johnny Cabot."

Full Movie — Cay Forester in Blonde Savage (1947):
Personally, we find it a bit odd that 5 Minutes to Live is so thoroughly unknown; we know tons of Cash fans, and not one of them had ever heard of the film when we asked them about it — a film that if nothing else is of note for being Johnny Cash's feature-film debut and first starring role. Hell, Cash doesn't even mention it in the only autobiography of his we have on our bookshelf — Man in Black (Warner Books, 1975) — but then he was in the midst of his pill-popping speedfreak days when he made the movie, so perhaps he couldn't really remember it all that well in his cleaner years. Or perhaps it was simply an unpleasant memory for him; according to Michael Streissguth in his book Johnny Cash: The Biography, Cash wasn't paid cash up front but was forced to take a percentage deal... seeing that the film wasn't exactly the biggest hit, it probably hardly brought in the money. Likewise, it really didn't help him break into Hollywood, either: despite Cash's own desire to break into the movies, it was another ten years before he had another feature film role, alongside Kirk Douglas, in the western A Gunfight (1971).
Whatever the reason the movie has been relegated to obscurity, however, it is not that the movie is absolutely terrible: hardly a masterpiece in many ways, it nevertheless moves quickly enough, even has one or two shocks, and age has given it a nice patina. Hardly imperative viewing, but good enough for a rainy afternoon — and face it, it's got Johnny Cash in it! (Watch it now before the remake comes out: Jan de Bont, who hasn't made a decent film since Speed [1994 / trailer], is set to remake it as a John Cusack vehicle within the near future.)
The plot is relatively simple: Johnny Cabot (Cash), a guitar-playing psycho hiding out in a sleazy motel with his curvaceous, rent-paying babe Doris (Midge Ware of Untamed Women [1952 / trailer: see below]), is hired by Fred Dorella (character actor Vic Tayback of Mansion of the Doomed [1976 / trailer] and Blood and Lace [1971 / trailer]) to take a bank manager's wife hostage so as to force the manager to empty the bank's safe. A "fool-proof" plan, as Fred calls it, but as we all know, "The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley." (Robert Burns, 1785.)

Trailer to Untamed Women, with Midge Ware:
That 5 Minutes to Live is low budget is pretty obvious in both the almost threadbare production values and the less-than-fully-developed script, but director Bill Karn (Ma Barker's Killer Brood [1960 / trailer / full movie]) does a good job with what he has. He handles the action scenes rather well and takes everything as far as he probably could at the time, thus the visuals often borderline on the sleazy and the situations the tawdry. 
Despite all that and an occasional shock and/or surprise as well as an overall solid framing and visual composition, however, he can't really do all that much about giving 5 Minutes to Live any real suspense because most of the movie is told as a flashback by an arrested and overly loquacious Fred, so long before Mrs. Wilson (Cay Forester) is even taken hostage we already know that the robbery is doomed to fail. As a result, the supposedly suspense-building twist, that Mr. Wilson (Donald Woods of 13 Ghosts [1960 / trailer], The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms [1953 / trailer] and Dimension 5 [1966 / trailer]) is having affair and planning to leave his wife anyways, is hardly the narrative sucker-punch that it is supposed to be. One can only wonder why they ever chose the framing device for this movie, for it adds nothing but running time (Ah-Hah!) and the movie would have been a lot more nerve-wracking and tense without it. And thus far better, of course.

Johnny Cash sings 5 Minutes to Live:
Cash's casting is an obvious gimmick playing upon the singer's bad boy image, but he does well with his one-note character: beady-eyed, stone-cold, unemotional and sadistic, it is just as easy to believe that he wouldn't blink an eye when shooting the woman he shares his bed with as it is that he would terrorize his hostage just to ease his boredom and make the time pass more quickly. What is much harder to believe, however, is that he would ever have a soft spot for kids; this convenient point plays a key role in the climactic events but never comes across as anything other than superficial and contrived. Still, for most of the movie, Cash exudes a psychotic placidness that literally seethes with simmering violence and emotional disregard, and this helps carry the movie far more so than the sometimes almost contrived acting style of the lead female, Cay Forester... if you get down to it, she is actually out-acted by the 8-year-old playing her son, no one less than Ron "Opie/Richie" Howard. Indeed, many of the secondary and tertiary characters — for example, both country singer Merle Travis as the spineless lackey Max and Pamela Mason (of The Navy vs. the Night Monsters [1966 / trailer] and Wild in the Streets [1968 / trailer]) as Mr. Wilson's surprisingly frumpy mistress Ellen Harcourt — make a better thespian impression than the stiltedness of Cay Forester as Mrs. Wilson.
The true flaw of 5 Minutes to Live is the script, which displays a little bit too much no-budget sloppiness — starting, of course, with the self-castrating framing sequence. At one point close to the end, for example, a cop gets shot dead and not even his partner seems to care enough to even take note that he's left the world of the living. Likewise, Cabot's decision to eliminate his girl, despite the fact that she's followed him on the run and is paying his way, purely due to the disparaging accusations of a man he just met (Fred, the head of the robbery plan) that she's the one who fingered him in New Jersey, is a little less than understandable. It does, however, do well to underscore just how ruthless Cabot is — which in turn makes it thrice as hard to believe that he would have such moral compunctions when it comes to kids.
As for the extended period of time that Cabot and Mrs Wilson spend together at her home, the sadistic head games he plays with her are disturbing, but nevertheless it eventually gets hard to believe that he would sexualize everything so much and then never actually rape her.** Likewise — though this is surely simply a by-product of the time, when housewives were housewives and unlike today were not expected to ever take the bull by the horns — Mrs. Wilson not only lets one-too-many chances of escape flit by unnoticed, but she is also unbelievably maladroit with a fire poker. (One can only assume that in all cases she was worried she might break a nail.) At least the final revelation made by Mr. Wilson at the end of the movie is a pleasant twist, turning as it does the movie's implausibly timely dues ex machina into a clever solution to buy time.
In the end, however, despite the narrative flaws and uneven acting, 5 Minutes to Live remains an interesting film (in no small part due to Johnny Cash) that not only chugs along at a decent pace but also keeps the viewer riveted. The movie is far from a masterpiece, but hardly a waste of time — particularly if you're a fan of Johnny Cash.

As An Extra — Johnny Cash Sings I Walk the Line in German:

* A fine public interest story, but it fails to take into consideration that the credit sequence states that the movie is based on a story by Palmer Thompson and adapted by Robert L. Joseph.
** According to the American Film Institute Catalog of Motion Pictures, when the movie was re-released as Door-to-Door Maniac in 1966 by Robert L. Lippert (a producer of The Last Man on Earth [1964], among others), new footage — including a rape sequence — was added. The public domain version found everywhere — and reviewed here — has all the sadistic foreplay but not the actual event... unless, of course, it was conveyed so "decently" that we missed it. But if the latter is true, then one can only say that Mrs. Wilson sure never shows any emotional scars from the event and smiles away into the sunset at the end of the movie...
The Full Movie — 5 Minutes to Live:

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