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.