[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]
Probably what the people who made Payday had in mind was an exercise in a sort of cinematic new journalism—an objective, but highly commercial, look at life as it is played out on the highways and in the hangouts of the country-western music circuit. Certainly producer Ralph J. Gleason, record company VP and Rolling Stone contributing editor, possesses the sort of credentials which would enable him to authenticate the milieu, as well as accurately assess its box-office potential in the wake of such films as Marjoe, Carry It On and Don’t Look Back—not to mention the current romantic fervor for country-western singers who have served time, been dopers, picked cotton—in short. Seen hard times. Audiences obviously get a charge out of nosing about the behind-the-scenes lives of big-name entertainers, satisfying their healthy or unhealthy curiosity about the necessarily diminished or tarnished identities of performers once they are no longer magnified by that magic circle of limelight. Then too, lurking in even the most sophisticated minds is the old cliché that these showbiz folks, for all the glory, lead really sad (or better yet, depraved) lives.
Payday‘s world provides much from which the sophisticated element can derive superior jollies: the kitschily plastic abounds in the taverns, restaurants, motels, and relationships in which the film’s third-rate entertainers circulate. Payday opens with shots of happy rural and smalltown types streaming into a tacky tavern where they appreciatively applaud a minor-league Johnny Cash’s nasal paean to “the country girl.” All this folksy camaraderie culminates in haggling over the night’s take with the tavern owner and humping a dazzled country girl in the backseat of the convenient Cadillac after having lured her there with the promise of an autographed album. Later, a nubile young thing hangs about the periphery of a post-performance poker game and party, is casually looked over and picked up by a band member, and ends up in his motel room. He knows what groupies are for and wants to get on with it without frippery or foreplay; she, on the other hand, goes into a coquettish Southern belle number—”Now, be niiice … Ah don’t know whaat you mean … Ah think you-all better take me home now …” What makes this more than a yuk-it-up opportunity to épater la rustique is the girl’s unaffected belief in the amenities: it’s not so much that she doesn’t on some level understand the name of the game, it’s just that her glamour-starved life has led her to hope for a less perfunctory seduction at the hands of a Nashville luminary.
Ultimately, what roils the fairly predictable waters of this almost-documentary—many members of the cast are folks from the Arkansas area where Payday was filmed—is the presence of Rip Torn. Torn’s performance is so charged with a semi-satanic energy and intensity that it enlarges and transforms both the character and context of Maury Dann, a moderately successful country-western singer. Torn is relentlessly malevolent as he traces the coming apart of a consummate bastard, the style and content of his acting working quite against the commercially conventional grain of the rest of the film, and thereby simultaneously subverting and saving it. One might have come away from Payday with all the prepackaged answers; Torn’s performance nullifies any pat responses. Lips curled in a perpetual sneer of chilling arrogance, Maury Dann boozes, fornicates, and pill-pops his way through the last thirty-six hours of a sort of life as though ridden by a destructive demon. The stations along his death march include a visit to his old homestead where he refuels his slatternly mother with plastic bags of pretty pills, and participates in a gratuitous fight with his sideman when the latter offers to buy Dann’s hunting dog out of its miserable life with his zonked mother. Money is thrown to the ground, a half-hearted struggle ensues, Dann’s hefty bodyguard-chauffeur appears with a shotgun. Dann gestures him off just long enough to pretend that he can handle his own fights—then signals him to step in after which, with one more face-saving, tracks-covering twist, he drawls, “Well, if it means that much to you, you can have the dog.” Dog sold and dust settling, Dann leans down and coolly picks up the money which we—and the sideman—have forgotten in the heat of the moment. Dann may be burning himself out, but he gives off no heat; he’s a cold and calculating wheelerdealer to the end. Having inherited the aforementioned groupie, he fondles and fucks her while his current camp-follower dozes blowsily on the car seat beside them and Chicago, his chauffeur, voyeurs from the driver’s seat. Later, Dann uses Chicago’s dumb loyalty to con him into taking the fall for the knifing of a drunk—the outraged boyfriend of that “country girl” Dann seduced so many miles ago.
Maury is a longdistance runner, a man who never stands still to take a rap or responsibility because he’s always got that big white Cadillac car to speed him off on a joyless ride to nowhere. But if Torn ensures your horrified acceptance of the credibility of this character, Payday fails to adequately deal with the question of what makes Maury run. Because their intentions are so much on the side of the documentary record, the makers of the film aren’t interested in attributing Dann’s sociopathy to an unhappy childhood, a broken marriage, the corruption of the race for success. But what then do we do with the larger-than-slice-of-life reality Torn makes of this character? Maury Dann is fiction on nearly the grand scale; Payday is modestly imaginative reportage. Somewhere between these two poles lies the tension that makes this film a rich, but curiously unsatisfying, experience.
Direction: Daryl Duke. Screenplay: Don Carpenter. Music: Shel Silverstein. Production: Ralph J. Gleason.
The Players: Rip Torn, Ahna Capri, Elayne Heilveil, Michael C. Gwynne, Cliff Emmich.
Copyright © 1973 Kathleen Murphy