Johnny Cash in His Film Debut

Even hardcore fans of the “Man in Black” might not know that back in 1961 the bad boy of country-western music decided to dabble in motion pictures and made his film debut in a low-budget wonder entitled Five Minutes to Live (aka Door to Door Maniac). It’s an enjoyably trashy genre mash-up that is part bank heist thriller, part home invasion psychodrama and part family sitcom in the style of Father Knows Best. Plus, in addition to Cash chewing up the scenery, the cast includes Country Music Hall of Famer Merle Travis as a bowling alley manager, little Ronnie Howard (who was already appearing on television in such series as Dennis the Menace and The Andy Griffith Show) and Vic Tayback, the Emmy-nominated co-star of the TV series Alice. It’s not their finest hour but if you’re a Cash fan or appreciate wild card obscurities like Blast of Silence (1961) or Shack Out on 101(1955), you know you want to see it.       


Here’s how the whole thing came together. Some time in 1959 Cash’s manager Bob Neal made a deal with Flower Film Productions to feature his client in a movie. Cash had recently moved to California and, typical of his open nature, was willing to try something new. Although the production was clearly a home-grown exploitation film by some aspiring independent filmmakers, it did offer Cash a juicy role as a guitar-playing psychopath. The film was directed by Bill Karn and was his final feature film. He had only directed three previous B-pictures including Gang Busters (1955), Guns Don’t Argue (1957) and Ma Barker’s Killer Brood (1960).

Although some sources say Cash’s film debut was listed as a production in progress as early as 1957, filming didn’t begin until 1959. Five Minutes to Live eventually had its premiere in late 1960 and didn’t go into general release until December of 1961. It quickly vanished from sight but then resurfaced in 1966 when American-International released it under the title Door to Door Maniac with new footage added by producer Robert L. Lippert of a rape scene (according to AFI notes) and a running time of 74 minutes.

Five Minutes to Live, however, had an original running time of 80 minutes, but the version that ran on TCM Underground several years old was only 74 minutes and the so-called rape scene was more implied than explicit with Cash roughing up Cay Forrester on the bed before being interrupted by a phone call. You have to wonder what is missing from that 80-minute version but I don’t think it’s going to inspire a holy grail search on the order of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).  

The film opens with small time crook Fred Dorella (Vic Tayback) telling his story, revealed as one long flashback, to an off-screen observer. It begins with a shootout on the New Jersey waterfront docks between two cops and two criminals – Johnny Cabot (Cash) and his partner – fleeing the scene of a robbery. Johnny is the only survivor in the melee and Cash’s first few minutes are promising as he grabs a machine-gun and goes in for the kill, the camera closing in on twitching, mad dog face. Then the minimalistic credits roll up; the hand drawn title card includes a bleeding, bullet-ridden hand in the lower right frame. Classy! If only the entire movie had sustained this crude, cartoon like energy but the uneven quality is also part of its strange appeal.  

DOOR TO DOOR MANIAC, (aka FIVE MINUTES TO LIVE), Johnny Cash, Midge Ware, 1961

Johnny accompanied by his East Coast girlfriend Doris (Midge Ware) holes up in some small town in California and bides his time while the police hunt for him. Then Max (Country Music Hall of Fame legend Merle Travis), a sleazy businessman who runs the local bowling alley/bar hooks him up with two-bit hood Fred Dorella. Together the two men agree to a daring bank robbery timed to last exactly five minutes and involves one gunman entering the bank to collect $75,000 while the other one holds the bank executive’s wife hostage at her home. If Ken Wilson (Donald Woods), the bank officer, doesn’t follow directions to a tee, his wife will be killed.    

We already know from the start that things will become unraveled because Johnny is a trigger-happy nutcase. To add an additional layer of impending disaster, Ken is cheating on his wife Nancy (Cay Forester) with plans to run away with his mistress Ellen (Pamela Mason, wife of actor James Mason) to Las Vegas. Another wrinkle in the plan involves Bobby (Ronnie Howard), the precocious son of Ken and Nancy, who returns home from school unexpectedly while his mom is being terrorized by Johnny. In some ways, it’s surprising that Five Minutes to Live isn’t better known simply for that unforgettable climax of Cash running across a backyard, carrying little Ronnie as a hostage/shield, and trading gunfire with policemen. It’s sort of a lo-fi precursor to that Chow Yun Fat shootout in the hospital – blazing gun in one hand, baby in the other – in John Woo’s Hard Boiled (1992) aka Lat sau san taam.    

Spanish film poster for Five Minutes to Live (1961).

The main reason to watch Five Minutes to Live though is Cash. With his slicked-back black hair and dark, intense features, he’s a compelling screen presence even when his line readings are awkward or self-conscious; it’s as if he’s winking at the audience saying, “I’m just messing around up here for the hell of it.” Like Elvis Presley, Cash might have developed into an impressive actor with the right director or manager behind him but he probably didn’t give a damn because music was always his career priority. He gets to sing the catchy title song here, played over the bucolic credits of a typical sunny day in small town America (kids playing baseball, walking along train tracks, etc.) and then later, in one of the more amusingly sicko moments, he sings the same song again to his terrified female captive, emphasizing the lyrics of “Five Minutes to Live.”

Mad dog Johnny Cabot (Johnny Cash) threatens Nancy Wilson (Cay Forester) and her son Bobby (little Ronny Howard) in Five Minutes to Live aka Door to Door Maniac (1961).

Throughout the narrative Cash’s character is portrayed as an unpredictable sociopath who has a particular disgust for the status quo and middle-class America. As Johnny sits in a parked car outside the Wilson home, waiting for the right moment to make his fateful house call, he looks around at the picture-perfect neighborhood and sneers, “I never saw so much of nothin’ in my life.” When he spots Nancy in her curlers and housecoat step outside to retrieve the morning paper and milk, he takes an immediate dislike, saying to Dorella, “She is a mess.” But Johnny is the bigger mess and we wait and pray for those scenes where he goes off his nut. First, he forces Nancy to put on a fluffy negligee he found while ransacking her closet and then decides she needs a beauty makeover – “I’m gonna fix you up.” In between the casual sadism, he plunks his guitar, prompting Nancy to ask, “Are you an entertainer,” to which comes the famous response, “No, Mrs. Wilson, I’m a killer.” He then pulls out a silencer and blasts a nearby flower pot with the bullet grazing Nancy’s face.

He delivers another great line when he corners Nancy in her bedroom and she starts to make up the bed – “Leave it alone. I like a messy bed”  – which leads to an attempted rape scene. In yet another scene, he jumps around like an amphetamine hophead (maybe it wasn’t acting – he was already a speed freak at this point in his career), playing with his victim and taunting her with “I ain’t  never had so much fun in a long time.” If Five Minutes to Live wasn’t so clumsily staged and ineptly directed, this might actually be offensive or even a squirm-inducing precursor to Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997).    

Criminal nutcase Johnny Cabot (Johnny Cash) attempts to rape housewife Nancy Wilson (Cay Forester) but is interrupted by a phone call in Five Minutes to Live (1961) aka Door to Door Maniac.

It would also make a lively case study for a feminist film study class for the way in which all the female characters are depicted; they either exist as subservient domestic slaves for their men or they are broad caricatures such as the busybody women’s club president (played by Norma Varden of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train), shown eating a box of chocolates as she gossips with Nancy on the phone. Of course, the male characters don’t fare any better and it’s quite surprising that Donald Wood’s miserable bank executive emerges as the hero of sorts in an unrealistic epilogue that could have been lifted from Leave It to Beaver, The Donna Reed Show or some other family sitcom. This is, after all, a man, who earlier during the bank robbery, even encouraged the criminals to kill his wife, freeing him to marry his mistress. In some ways, the entire film could be viewed as an attack on suburbia since most of what we see of the town residents is unflattering and no one is truly likeable. Maybe a door to door maniac is just what this community deserved.    

At the time of filming on Five Minutes to Live, Cash told reporters, “It’s gonna be a good ‘un. My leadin’ lady – I forget her name – and I, have some good scenes.” When the film proved to be a low impact bomb, he fired his manager and later admitted, “I shouldn’t have done it. My leadin’ lady was the producer’s wife.” But we’re glad he made it because it’s a rare opportunity to see the young Johnny Cash in a dramatic vehicle, regardless of the quality.

Cash would appear to much better advantage as himself, performing music in such quickie productions as Hootenanny Hoot (1963) or The Road to Nashville (1967). He later proved he was a capable actor as well in Lamont Johnson’s allegorical Western,  A Gunfight (1971), in which Cash convincingly holds his own with Kirk Douglas in a tale about a showdown organized for profit for the survivor. 

Five Minutes to Live has been available in numerous editions on DVD (some of them titled Door to Door Maniac) over the years and the video quality of most of them is fair to lousy.  The DVD release that has received the best feedback from fans about the quality is the version released by Bear Family (a German label) in April 2004 but it may be out of print now.

*This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.

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