Thursday, March 21, 2013

"F" is for Five Minutes to Live

 In some ways, Five Minutes to Live is a distant cousin of a Samuel Fuller movie, specificallly The Naked Kiss. It has that sleazy underbelly of suburbia that David Lynch (arguably) mastered with Blue Velvet, but with the stark black and white aesthetic of early Fuller. I wish I could say that Five Minutes to Live was as good as either of those films, but it has some tasty morsels for fans of quasi-arcane film trivia.

 For example, Five Minutes to Live (also known as The Door to Door Maniac, which makes a lot less sense given the plot) stars Johnny Cash, who also wrote the title song for the movie. It would surprise me to hear that anybody but the most die hard of Johnny Cash fans had ever heard of the movie, let alone the song.:

 To be fair, it's not the most memorable Johnny Cash song you're ever going to hear, but then again his performance isn't that swell, either. Don't get me wrong; Cash shows a lot of enthusiasm as Johnny Cabot, a big city criminal cooling his heels in Camellia Gardens, New Jersey, but his line delivery is a little stilted. He looks more comfortable when he's sitting in his hotel room plucking away at a guitar while his girl (Midge Ware) complains about being stuck in the suburbs.

 Then again, when he finds out that she isn't who she says she is, Cabot (SPOILER) guns her down in cold blood. While his delivery isn't great, Cash does sell the career professional who knows when to be careful and when to be ruthless. It's just when he needs to vocally express it that we run into trouble, but the Man in Black's charisma sneaks out when he's being stoic or casing out a joint.

 Cabot ended up at the wrong job at the wrong time and shot his way out of a police ambush, which is what got him dumped off in Camellia Gardens, a seemingly idyllic small town where the Vice President of the Bank is married to the "Homemaker of the Year." That's where crook Fred Dorella (Vic Tayback) gets the idea to rob an otherwise impregnable bank: he'll handle the husband while Cabot threatens the wife. To ensure everything goes smoothly, they'll call every five minutes or she gets it - hence the title.

 The catch, it turns out, is that it's anything but paradise inside the home of Ken and Nancy Wilson (Donald Woods and Cay Forester) - he's browbeaten about the added stresses being put on him by her job (and the meddlesome town council that put them both where they are) and it frequently boils over behind closed doors. Neither of them have time for their son Bobby (Little Ronnie Howard - oh, did I forget to mention that Ron Howard is in this movie?).

 Here's another point where Five Minutes to Live was a little tricky to get a handle on: while Fred and Johnny are casing the Wilson house, the movie frequently cuts in to their domestic life / morning routine, and it's hard to tell if director Bill Karn (Guns Don't Argue) is going for darkly melodramatic or wryly cynical. It seems like Bobby's observations about his parents and much of their banter is meant to be funny, but the delivery is so earnest that it's more uncomfortable than amusing. Meanwhile, the crooks are sitting outside, trying to comprehend a world where people live by schedules and routines.

 But it gets better - Ken is cheating on his wife  with Ellen Harcourt (Pamela Mason) - unbeknownst to anyone, he thinks. so things get... complicated. Well, not at first: Cabot pretends to be a door-to-door guitar salesman (hence the alternate title to the film) in order to get into the Wilson home. Before long, the killer is flummoxed by her social schedule impeding on their plan and Ken discovers that his dalliance with Ms. Harcourt may not be "their little secret," even as he plans to run away with her later that day. Fred's more than a little surprised that Mr. Wilson says "Suppose you'd be doing me a favor by killing my wife?"

 With a little more finesse, Five Minutes to Live could be another The Naked Kiss, but it hits just shy of the target, a sleazy exploitation film that isn't quite sure what direction it wants to go in. It doesn't surprise me that elements of Five Minutes to Live pop up in movies like The Ref and Bandits, which play to the comedy more and the domestic sleaze less. There are times that, despite its muddled execution, Five Minutes to Live is a bitterly funny movie. At the same time, the more we get to know Cabot around Mrs. Wilson, the more disturbing he becomes.

 There are shades of Frank Booth in the way he handles her and terrorizes her - first singing "Five Minutes to Live" and then grazing her face with a bullet. He harasses her for not "looking right," not because she cares but because he does.  If you ever thought, "you know what would be a good vibe for Johnny Cash? Rape-y!" then you're in luck. It gets even darker than that towards the end, when Bobby shows up - Cabot doesn't like to involve children and a shootout with the police has tragic consequences for the normally cautious "maniac."

 Five Minutes to Live is just shy of being the movie it could be, and even though there's a good reason the film isn't very well known, I'd say more often than not it's worth the watch. The rough spots hold it back, but just because it doesn't find the artful balance between sleaze and cinema, Five Minutes to Live still has a trick or two up its sleeve if you're patient. Check it out, if you're in the mood for something mean spirited and rough around the edges.

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