Mill Creek Musings: Five Minutes to Live (1961)

It’s Monday — time for another installment of Mill Creek Musings! Today’s film, Five Minutes to Live, appears in the Sensational Sixties set. The print runs 1:14:22 and visually, it’s a bit fuzzy, but not too bad.

(Image via Amazon)
(Image via Amazon)

Five Minutes to Live opens with a monologue by a man sitting at a shadowy table, which turns into narration as the film transitions into a flashback. A shootout occurs, and then the credits roll, with scenes of suburbia layered under Johnny Cash’s fantastic title song.

The film remains in flashback land for most of its running time, detailing a robbery gone wrong. A man named Johnny Cabot (Johnny Cash) has been hired to break into the home of the vice president of a local bank (Donald Woods), where he’ll hold the banker’s wife hostage and demand a ransom. Meanwhile, Fred (Vic Tayback), the man who hired Johnny, will go to the bank to secure the ransom money.

Cabot lurks in waiting for the banker to leave home and for his son to head off to school, and then he strikes. Posing as a guitar instructor going door-to-door to sell lessons, he makes his way into the house and intimidates homemaker Nancy Wilson (Cay Forester). She’ll only have – you guessed it – Five Minutes to Live if her husband doesn’t hand the dough over to Fred.

Bill Karn directs 1961’s Five Minutes to Live, which was later re-released under the title Door-to-Door Maniac. The screenplay is based on a story by Palmer Thompson, who is best-known as a television writer for series like The Rifleman and Hawaii Five-O.

An opening monologue is no unique way to introduce a flashback, but it’s incredibly effective in this film. The speaker, later revealed to be the robbery’s mastermind Fred, sits in shadow across a table. It’s not clear where he’s sitting or who he’s speaking to, making the viewer feel as though he’s talking directly to us.

And the flashback structure isn’t the only thing that’s effective in this film. I’m not sure if it’s because he’s a legend or just because he’s got a fantastic, expressive face, but Cash has a really magnetic screen presence. I was captivated by his performance, even when his acting (i.e. the scene where he runs around the house smashing things) and the dialogue itself (i.e. “What makes ’em hand hand over the money? HYPNOTISM?!”) got comical. His performance mixes the corny with the sinister, and I loved every minute of it.

(Image via Cineweekly)
(Image via Cineweekly)

Cay Forester also does her share of over-acting as hostage-held housewife Nancy. Her hysteria is understandable, though, due to her situation, and makes the film all the more captivating.

My one issue with the film is the amount of time it spends showing the internal drama of the Wilson family. Nancy and her husband are shown arguing before her husband goes to work. All of this family drama does serve a purpose (which I won’t spoil for those of you who haven’t yet seen the film) but it could have served that purpose without wasting precious minutes of the hour-‘n’-15 running time. The action-packed scenes do make up for this somewhat.

Five Minutes to Live is an interesting crime drama. It bears some similarity to the stellar The Desperate Hours, what with the suburban hostages and all, but the films are nowhere near identical. I wouldn’t put Five Minutes in the same class as The Desperate Hours, but they’re both very good watches for this particular sector of the crime drama genre. The score: 4/5

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4 thoughts on “Mill Creek Musings: Five Minutes to Live (1961)

  1. Ha! I was going to make a joke in this comment about the Johnny Cash lookalike in the poster…and surprise, it was really Johnny Cash! I had no idea he’d ever acted in movies before…and that photo of him with the gun is priceless. If anyone ever asks me, “Name a movie which stars a country music legend and a guy who played a cook named Mel”, I have the answer!

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    1. It’s such a great photo! I knew he acted on TV because I remember his guest-starring role on my childhood favorite show, Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, haha. I had never heard of this film until I discovered it in the set, though. It’s well worth a watch!

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      1. I’m sure it’s available somewhere…Netflix, Internet Archive, YouTube. Somehow, I’ll find it…there’s no way I can pass up a movie where Johnny Cash steps out of his comfort zone and plays a ‘door-to-door guitar instructor’!

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