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AUGUST 30, 1999: 

Five Minutes to Live

D: Bill Karn (1961)
with Johnny Cash, Vic Tayback, Merle Travis, Ron Howard, Midge Ware.
(aka Door-to-Door Maniac)

Johnny (Cash), a small-time hood, teams up with Fred (Tayback) on an extortion scheme. After thoroughly casing the routine of a bank president's family, Johnny poses as a door-to-door pitchman selling guitar lessons. Once in the house, he pulls a revolver and takes the housewife hostage; at a predetermined time, Fred goes to the bank and demands 70 grand from the bank officer, with his wife's life in the balance. Unknown to them, however, the husband was planning to ditch his wife and run off with a rather stuffy woman with a British accent. This crime melodrama would be a novelty, considering the cast, except for the fact that Cash is actually not bad. The movie's opening scenes show Cash gunning down a cop with a Thompson submachine gun, setting the tone nicely. Being the rotten bastard that he is, he pulls a gun and shoots his girlfriend a few minutes later. With his snarl and mountainous pompadour held in place with Magnalube, he makes a pretty good sadistic creep. He plays the theme song over and over (has anybody covered that song yet?), has his way with the housewife, and keeps her terrorized as they count down to her impending death. Dressed up in a suit and tie, Cash comes across as a cold-blooded rockabilly beatnik hitman (try wrapping your brain around that). Howard plays the son, coming across as Opie with somewhat more attitude. Don't expect much from Travis' acting skills, though; he's not too credible as the gangster with the thick Kentucky drawl. At least he was nice enough to record the guitar parts that Johnny fakes while he torments his quarry. This is not a real easy movie to find, but it's worth it. It taps into the fear of having one's suburban tranquility invaded; think a low-rent version of The Desperate Hours or The Dark Past. It's not a bad psychological drama, albeit a pretty sleazy one, and Johnny Cash acquits himself nicely. From the original taglines: "It could be your street ... your house ... your life!!" --Jerry Renshaw



Lady in a Cage

D: Walter Grauman (1964)
with Olivia De Havilland, Anne Sothern, James Caan, Scatman Crothers, Rafael Campos, Jennifer Billingsley.

In the mid-Sixties, it became rather fashionable for aging Hollywood divas to appear in lurid shockers; witness Tallulah Bankhead in Die! Die! My Darling!, Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Joan Crawford in Berserk and Strait-Jacket, Olivia DeHavilland in Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Though some of those career jumpstarts play as high camp today, Lady in a Cage still packs a considerably nasty punch. De Havilland plays an aging, wealthy widow who is recuperating from a recent hip operation and is forced to use a home elevator to get from one story of her home to the other. In the movie's opening scenes, her son leaves for an out-of-town trip, but he's actually leaving to escape the unhealthy relationship between the two of them. While she's headed for the upper story of the house, a power failure occurs that leaves her stranded in the elevator car 12 feet off the ground. The elevator's alarm bell arouses the curiosity of a passing wino, who comes in and helps himself to the widow's wine cellar. The transient tells his friend (Sothern) about the load of booty in the house and the two of them return together. At the pawn shop, however, they attract the attention of three quasi-beatnik thugs (Caan, in his second film role, Campos, and Billingsley), who follow them back to the house to horn in on the action. All the home invaders merely ignore the widow's pleas for help as they toss her house in an orgy of violence. In fact, an impassioned appeal to the thieves' humanity is met with a rude belch from Caan. On the one hand, this is a completely overwrought hamfest (especially on De Havilland's part) and scenery-chewing contest, but at the same time, it's a thoroughly unpleasant movie to watch. The beatnik gang's feral behavior foreshadows what would come along in movies from much later in the Sixties and Seventies. De Havilland's imprisonment in the cage seems to be an allegory of alienation and isolation, while the constant noisy intrusions of traffic sounds, aircraft, radio, and the like point to the cacophony of modern society. It's a little obvious, perhaps, but still effective. There's a level of violence and brutality in this movie that had to have been pretty offensive in 1964; story has it that the film was banned entirely in Britain. Director Grauman cut his teeth on TV series like Naked City, The Twilight Zone, The Untouchables, and The Fugitive, all shows that came along when television was coming into its own and a style of "pure television" was being defined. This movie's stark direction and cinematography show the director's TV roots; the staging and compositions all shout television pretty loudly and are the perfect complement to the seedy goings-on. It's a nerve-wracking viewing experience with an ending that's a real jaw-dropper. Viewing suggestion: For an emotionally exhausting double feature, pair this movie up with 1963's The Sadist or 1967's The Incident. Just stock up on the beer first, and maybe take a shower afterward. --Jerry Renshaw



Lansky

D: John McNaughton (1999)
with Richard Dreyfuss, Eric Roberts, Anthony LaPaglia, Max Perlich, Beverly D'Angelo.

The American genre movie is alive and well on cable TV. There have probably been more good Westerns produced in the last half-dozen years than any time since the late Fifties/early Sixties for companies like TNT, HBO, Hallmark, and Showtime. Gangster, biography, and detective films, as well, have flourished on cable, mimicking the Thirties-Fifties situation when genre works were a staple of producing film studios. Lansky, an HBO production, is a stellar effort directed by McNaughton (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) and written by David Mamet (The Untouchables), featuring a terrific cast. Unfortunately, it falls flat. Dreyfuss turns in a fine performance, but it is never as chilling as Lee Strasberg's turn as Lansky in Godfather II. The film cuts back and forth between Lansky's life, as he becomes a rising star in the mob, and his efforts in the mid-Seventies to find a country that would accept him after he is thrown out of Israel as an undesirable. Mamet's point is obvious; Lansky was always a man without a country, which made him the classic American. The story never tells us enough about Lansky. His relationship with his wife, girlfriends, and crippled son is telegraphed, and with a telling look Dreyfuss lets us know what we're supposed to think about this cold man. Information about his criminal career is conveyed in snippets. Redemption is provided by the great Perlich playing the young Lansky, but it isn't enough. The film ends up muddled and swirling, never really clearly telling its story. --Louis Black


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