Before this week, if you wanted to catch something akin to the true essence of the Man in Black on the big screen, you’d have had to track down a copy of the all-but-forgotten 1961 drive-in also-ran Door to Door Maniac
. This Desperate Hours
retread from American International Pictures starred Johnny Cash as a funereal thug who takes tyke Ronnie Howard and his mother hostage in the wake of a bank heist gone southbound. Cash whiles away what few hours he has left crooning gravedigger schmaltz like "Five Minutes to Death" and the creepy "I’ve Come to Kill You" to the poor bank president’s wife. Actress Cay Forrester churned out the mortally wounded script for this stumblebum noir, so she had it coming, but Cash acquits himself admirably as the sort of lowlife bad enough to bleach the fun clean out of good old American manslaughter. It’s the eyes, you see. The way they shine and roll all wrong under those drooping, cold-blooded lids is method acting straight from the original amphetamine reptile. Dope, guns, and fucking in the streets? Both real and reel Cash lived for all three and survived often enough to become a legend not once but twice. He circumvented the rowdy mantrap of diminishing rock & roll returns (which muffled virtually all of Sam Phillips’ six-string cocksmen in the end) by giving up his one true love – little white speed pills – for his other one true love – young Memphis country and gospel sasspot June Carter (Witherspoon), a powder keg of padlocked passions whose sparks ignited for her music, friends, family, and also, to her dismay, this black-clad baritone with the quiver in his voice and the arrow in his heart. Joaquin Phoenix as Cash in Walk the Line
is the next best thing to having been there, I suppose, and although the sinner man’s early successes and echoing woes look chaotically entertaining indeed in that hellishly dashing sort of way young doomsters can exude, the wreckage he leaves in his wake is quick and obvious and banal. Only the steady output of his lonely locomotive guitar and plaintive, almost homely, voice made this bad Cash worth anybody’s jukebox dime. As the son of an Arkansas sharecropper (Patrick), who blames young J.R. for the horrific accidental death by bandsaw of his beloved older brother (and preacher-to-be), Cash’s only friends were the radio, gospel music, and his mother (singer Lynne). At 18 he saw his chance and left behind the cotton flatlands for a stint in the Air Force before returning to marry first wife Vivian (Goodwin), sire three daughters, and, by the skin of his teeth and the grace of Sun Records, cut a record and get it on the radio. It’s here, especially, that Phoenix becomes the tour-ravaged, fan-struck (and -fucked) road rat, who only comes into his own after damning his own familial good fortune by tumbling for the ever-hesitant June like a pair of the most loaded dice in the devil’s pocket And that’s it, really: Cash, Carter, and the Benzedrine and Dexedrine 12-step. Mangold, working from a fine, tightly wound script by himself and Gill Dennis, begins and ends things at Folsom Prison, immersed in the roar and the stink of caged men unchained by Cash’s genuine rebel yell (or drawl). Mangold, Phoenix, and Witherspoon, all excellent in their roles, are in on the secret: Folsom Prison was as likely as sky to be Johnny Cash’s real, final homestead. Things just got a little mixed up on the way to hell. And thank God for that.