Tuesday, March 25, 2014

“I Talk the Line”: Johnny Cash Discovers Acting

So a newly rediscovered album by the great Johnny Cash goes on sale today. Out Among the Stars, recorded in the early 1980s when Cash had a deal with Columbia Records, was shelved because the label deemed it non-commercial, even though it featured Cash at the height of his powers, along with wife June Carter and good friend Waylon Jennings. The old tapes have been resurrected by Cash’s son, John Carter Cash, and now the public has the chance to listen in. This album, along with a very dramatic Johnny Cash postage stamp and a bestselling biography by veteran music writer Robert Hilburn, signals a new groundswell of interest in the Man in Black.

Hollywood  has long been aware of Johnny Cash, who died in 2003. The 2005 biopic Walk the Line nabbed a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Joaquin Phoenix and a Best Actress win for Reese Witherspoon, who put on a black wig to play the everlovin’, autoharp-strummin’ June Carter. Cash’s deep, mournful baritone was featured on many movie soundtracks, and over the years he acted in numerous TV episodes, especially in western roles. Playing himself, he guest-starred on everything from Hee Haw to Saturday Night Live, and even hosted his own musical variety show (1969-1971)

Early in his career, Cash was eager to emulate Elvis Presley, who had capitalized on his recording success by starring in a long string of movies. The first, Love Me Tender, appeared in 1956: this romantic melodrama set just after the Civil War earned Elvis some respect as an actor while also launching a mega-hit record. Thereafter, Elvis made scores of movies (of varying quality) while the money kept rolling in.

Cash’s own feature film debut, following a few appearances on shows like Wagon Train and  The Rebel, was the leading role in a low-budget 1961 thriller called Five Minutes to Live. I discovered it when I was researching the life of  Ron Howard. At age seven, not long after he began playing Opie on The Andy Griffith Show, Ronny was cast as Bobby Wilson, a small-town boy whose mother is the film’s female lead. Normally Rance and Jean Howard were cautious indeed about selecting material for their talented young son. So it’s surprising to come upon Five Minutes to Live (later retitled Door to Door Maniac). Whereas Elvis’s movie roles, from the first, always put him in a good light, Johnny Cash seemed to be trying for a darker sort of appeal. In Five Minutes to Live, he’s a hardened criminal in on a nefarious plot to hold a rich man’s wife for ransom. He’s sadistic, as well as sexually predatory. But then young Bobby comes home from school, upsetting all the calculations of Johnny and his partner in crime. And soon the police get wind of what’s going on.

The ending involves serious gunplay, major jeopardy for young Bobby, and an illogically rosy fadeout. (The contradictions and plot holes in the clumsy script defy description.) Though Johnny Cash is definitely pegged as the bad guy, he gets a moment of redemption when he takes pity on the endangered young boy. He also gets to sing. He first gains access to his victim’s house by posing as a door-to-door guitar instructor. Later he uses his instrument to serenade the captive wife with a charming ditty about how she has (yup!) only five minutes to live unless someone shows up with the loot.

Cash, not surprisingly, makes a powerful movie villain. I doubt this film, though, contributed much of value to his remarkable career. 


  1. I liked this little movie somewhat more than you did - here's my relatively brief review from my blog - which also has a little more info about the changes made to the movie when it was re-released as Door to Door Maniac in 1967:

    "There were a lot of 'small' crime films in the 50's and 60's, where a couple of lowlifes would come up with a plan to pull a heist, kidnap someone, or bump someone off for a quick ticket to easy street. This is one of those movies, but it stands out for several reasons. First and second - it stars Johnny Cash (!) and Vic (Mel Sharples himself!) Tayback as the two lowlifes. Third, their plot involves a bank manager and his family, and the kid is little Ronny Howard, on break from The Andy Griffith Show. Fourth, it was put out more than once, originally as this movie in 1961, then re-released with new footage as Door to Door Maniac in 1967. I've heard that the second version has at least some of the same actors in new footage, but they've changed weight and appearance signifigantly and the new scenes are bumping up against the old so they're going through doors and whoa! Thirty pounds and different sideburns! This version is a pretty tense little thriller with Cash hijacking the house of bank manager Donald Woods (13 Ghosts) while Don's at work. With the Mrs. now at the point of a gun, Vic Tayback pays a visit to the bank and demands money, letting hubbie know if phone calls aren't made to the house on a regular basis, Cash will off the better half. But Tayback and Cash don't know that Woods made plans that very morning to leave his wife and head out of town with his mistress, so he might be making his life a little easier if he holds back on the money... Cash is the real reason to watch this, and he's really not bad, playing a high strung psycho who likes to stalk around ranting one minute, then serenade his victim on the guitar the next. His choice of song? The title tune, natch. Tayback plays his scuzzo with gusto, as is expected; everybody else is a bit on the level of a sitcom from the period. The finale doesn't hold together real well, but it doesn't completely destroy the movie. But you have to give it to Johnny. He didn't do an erstaz Elvis movie for his first film role; he went out there in a proto-Tarantino flick (no profanity, but you get the idea) and did just fine. If that sounds good, track this one down. (I found it on TCM one night).

    And if his costume in this movie had caught on instead of his ebony duds - we might be talking about The Man in Tweed now...

  2. Really? I don't remember the tweed threads. I do remember Cash is a pretty powerful presence, and Tayback fills the bill nicely. It's the husband, wife, son combo that doesn't make much sense. And from my perspective as the author of a Ron Howard biography, it's a surprising film. Little Ronny is a total smart-aleck early on, behaving in a way that I know his real-life parents -- excellent people both -- took pains to avoid in his other childhood roles.

  3. By the way, Mr. C, I neglected to thank you for your review. I suspect I saw only the earlier version, but the changes in weight and sideburn length sound like a total hoot.

  4. Interesting thing related to the movie is that Cash recorded a theme song for it that was rejected and sat in the archives until it showed up on one of the Columbia-Legacy Bootleg volumes a few years ago. It's a very ironic little tune that has a very similar feel to the later 25 Minutes to Go that Cash would cover from Shel Silverstein. It's an excellent recording, actually, so at least one thing of worth came out of the movie, even though it took 50 years for the world to hear it!