Five Minutes to Live (1961)

It Could Be Your Street… Your House… Your Life!

Cover image to 1961's Five Minutes to Live

Six years after releasing his debut single, “Hey Porter”, for the legendary Sun Records, Johnny Cash took to the big screen for the first time in the oddball little thriller FIVE MINUTES TO LIVE (occasionally known as DOOR TO DOOR MANIAC). The Man in Black plays Johnny Cabot, a hardened criminal and psychopath who is just as skilled with a pistol as he is with an acoustic guitar—he even sings the title song, naturally.

Cabot partners up with Fred Dorella (Vic Tayback) for a new sort of bank heist. Dorella approaches bank manager Ken Wilson (Donald Woods) at work with a simple demand: Cash this worthless check made out for $70,000 or your wife gets it. Meanwhile Cabot, having already charmed his way into the Wilson household by pretending to be a traveling salesman, is holding housewife Nancy hostage, just itching to make good on the threat. Dorella calls him every five minutes with updates and instructions—hence the title of the film.

Cabot and Durella from 1961's Five Minutes to Live

FIVE MINUTES TO LIVE is anomalous in that it partly foresees the grim exploitation of the coming decade, and is partly a throwback to the wholesomeness of the previous one. Before Ken leaves for work in the morning, there is an extended scene of domestic blather about the PTA, of all things. Although this blather is important as a set-up to future integral events, it goes on too long. These moments, coupled with the baffling finale, give an almost unworldly vibe to the film. It’s as if Krug & Company from LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT have been deposited into the Arnaz-Ball vehicle THE LONG, LONG TRAILER. So yes, it is more than a little uneven at times, but when it’s playing to its strengths, it is sincerely gripping and unnerving. Cash may overact on occasion—hell, his performance is downright manic—but he is playing something of a madman, so maybe arch is the way to go. He’s a truly despicable character, but carries himself with such evil grace that he’s a pleasure to watch. And his music? Top notch. This is fascinating both as a character piece and as a pop culture artifact. I had to sleep on it to come to the conclusion that I loved it, but when I woke up, I absolutely had to watch it again.

The longer we spend with Johnny Cash’s Cabot, the more despicable we realize he truly is. It’s not enough to psychologically torment and terrorize Nancy, but he has to manhandle her as well. The threat of sexual violence is consistently in the air, and the only reason it doesn’t manifest is because Cabot is interrupted before he can continue. And when Nancy’s young son Bobby (Ron Howard) comes home early and the shit starts to hit the fan, Cabot’s not against grabbing the boy and dragging him into a firefight in a combination of hostage and human shield. I suppose it’s to Cabot’s credit, though, that he did manage to scrounge up some degree of human emotion when he believed Bobby was injured, but if ever there was a case of too little too late, this is it.

If Cabot and Dorella are our antagonists, then Nancy and Ken Wilson are meant to be our protagonists. Unfortunately, though Nancy is ineffable as the victim, that’s virtually all that she is. Her husband Ken scarcely has any heroic attributes himself. He’s an unfaithful cad, cheating on Nancy with the harlot Ellen Harcourt (Pamela Mason), and insinuating that if these thugs were to murder his wife, many of his troubles would be over. This adds an extra layer of grim nastiness to the proceedings, but also serves to make the finale more baffling.

Johnny Cash as the evil Cabot in 1961's Five Minutes to Live

Not every home invasion thriller needs to end on a grim note. In fact, in the era that FIVE MINUTES TO LIVE stemmed from, I would say that such endings were the exception and not the rule. However, the wrap-up here, which ties everything in such a nice little bow, is so sickeningly saccharine that it all but negates everything that came before it. Indeed, it’s almost as if Cabot and Dorella have been retconned out of existence, and the entire movie had never taken place. There are no negative repercussions of the preceding trauma, and in fact, Nancy’s and Ken’s relationship has never been healthier—despite that fact that just the day before she was nearly raped, Ken was almost content to let her die, and somewhere in the city, Ellen Harcourt is now left heartbroken that she’s not going to get the wedding she was promised.

Johnny Cash isn’t the only country music legend to appear in this dirty ditty. Merle Travis, perhaps best known for coal mining hit “Sixteen Tons”, appears in a small part as Max, the sniveling owner of a bowling alley who introduces Cabot to Durella. Travis performs guitar on the version of the theme song that plays during the opening credits.

FIVE MINUTES TO LIVE was directed by Bill Karn who cut his teeth on television programs like DANGEROUS ASSIGNMENT and GANGBUSTERS before moving onto the big screen with MA BARKER’S KILLER BROOD in 1960, on which he was also associate producer. The screenplay was written by Cay Forester, who also played Nancy. This was her first (and only) screenwriting credit, and her biggest role yet, so both responsibilities are likely due to the fact that her husband, Ludlow Flower Jr. was the producer.

Johnny Cash wielding his gun in 1961's Five Minutes to Live

According to pre-release press material, the idea for the film came to Forester while she was preparing French toast for her family, and she hammered out a number of key scenes in one marathon sitting. This goes against the onscreen credits, though, which state that her script was based on a story idea by television writer Palmer Thompson. It’s much more likely that Thompson came up with the story idea, and Forester worked out the details. I guess the French toast version made for better publicity.

Ludlow Flower, Jr. was born on November 15, 1918 in Denver, Colorado to Ludlow and Mary Maroney Flower. His grandfather, John Sebastian Flower, was a major developer in Denver, and left enough money behind for his son to live off of the inheritance. Ludlow, Jr. served in the Air Force during WWII, retrieving wreckage of airplanes that were shot down over Europe, and moved to California in 1948, marrying Forester around 1950. Over the years, Flower was a bank director, president of the California State Council of the Arts, a board member of the Museum of Science, director of Marymount College and Santa Terisita Hospital, and, most famously, was appointed to the Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Commission in 1964, becoming president two years later. Another two years following that, he retired amongst controversy, when allegations of conflicts of interests were raised. He had permitted Actors Studio West to lease out the famous William S. Hart mansion, where they remain to this day. This was seen as a problem as Forester, now reportedly “estranged”, was a member of the group. Flower remarried a woman named Margery in 1971 or thereabouts, and passed away from complications associated with old age on February 25, 2008.

A name like Ludlow Flower, Jr. ought to be plastered across hundreds of title screens, but that is not the case. FIVE MINUTES TO LIVE is the only credit listed for him at the IMDb, but that’s not entirely accurate. He was amongst the members of The TeeVee Company, whose services were listed as “Custom built TV shows, film and live”. The TeeVee Company was one of the earliest syndicators of previously-aired programs—TALES OF TOMORROW was their most famous acquisition—and they may have produced other programs in-house, though documentation of what these programs are has proven difficult to come by. Not even the internet has all the answers.

On a closing note, a number of sources, have the following synopsis for FIVE MINUTES TO LIVE: “A gang of bank robbers terrorize a small town by knocking on doors and then killing whoever answers.” This was obviously written by someone who has never watched a single frame of the movie, and it has spread across the internet via misinformation infection.

It sounds like a film that I would truly like to see, however, so if anyone out there is looking for their next project, I urge you to consider this.


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