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Noirvember 2020, Episode 11: Five Minutes to Live (1961)

Five Minutes to Live (aka Door-to-Door Maniac, 1961)

Directed by Bill Karn

Produced by James Ellsworth, Lodlow Flower

Screenplay by Cay Forrester

Based on a story by Palmer Thompson

Cinematography by Carl E. Guthrie

Edited by Donald Nosseck

Somera Productions-Flower Film Productions

Distributed by Sutton Pictures

(1:20) Amazon Prime

When I was a band director, every high school band in the state had to perform at the state band festival each year, and all the performances were recorded. Immediately after sitting through one of the most laughable bands any of us had ever heard, the recording company was overrun with orders for that group’s performance tape. Everyone just had to have a copy of it. I experienced something of the same feeling after watching Five Minutes to Live. It’s such a bad film, but I can’t imagine a world in which it doesn’t exist.


The producers of Five Minutes to Live should’ve gone with the alternate (and much more exciting) title used for its 1966 American International Pictures re-release, Door-to-Door Maniac. You’ll see why in a moment. In his feature film debut, Johnny Cash plays hardened criminal Johnny Cabot, who decides to team up with his sleaze-bag buddy Fred (Vic Tayback) for a caper that just can’t miss: Johnny, with guitar case in hand and posing as a door-to-door salesman, will ring the doorbell of Ken Wilson (Donald Woods, below left), the local bank vice-president. Johnny and Fred know Ken's at work, but his wife is home and their kid's in school. Once inside the house, Johnny will take Ken’s wife Nancy (Cay Forrester) hostage while Fred visits Ken at the bank, demanding $70,000. Fred tells Ken to call home just long enough to prove he’s not lying. Johnny has been instructed to kill Nancy if Ken hasn’t called back in five minutes.

Not the greatest plan in the world, I’ll grant you that. As an added bonus, Ken has been seeing another woman and was planning on divorcing his wife anyway, so what’s the problem? The problem is that Ken and Nancy’s little son Bobby (Ron Howard, billed here as Ronnie Howard) comes home early. Ring of Fire, here we come…

The film is clearly bad, but there’s an unmistakable odd energy coming from Cash that you can’t turn away from, even if you wanted to (and you don’t). All of this is served up with a side order of ridiculousness, but before you can start laughing, it becomes terrifying. The family scenes with the Wilson family are awkward and goofy, which makes every moment Cash holds Nancy hostage unsettling in contrast. Young Ron Howard almost steals the show, and would have, if Cash were a trifle less menacing.

Cay Forrester not only played the role of Nancy, she also wrote the script. You may remember her as the married woman who tempts Edmond O’Brien in D.O.A. (1950), but she also co-starred in other B pictures as well as making uncredited appearances in Advise & Consent (1962) and Airport 1975.

Perhaps most astounding of all, Five Minutes to Live, produced for $300,000, made an incredible $5.6 million at the box office. Ya know, I’d pay good money to have a restored version of this film on Blu-ray, but I’m not exactly sure why. Maybe, like that band recording I mentioned earlier, I can’t imagine a world in which Five Minutes to Live doesn’t exist.

Five Minutes to Live (excuse me, Door-to-Door Maniac) is currently on Amazon Prime, and as you can tell from most of these photos, the picture quality isn't great. But I hope you'll check it out.

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