Payday (Daryl Duke, 1972)

FOR MAURY DANN, EVERY DAY IS “PAYDAY”

In a rare starring role, Rip Torn plays Maury Dann, a hard-living country singer traveling the Deep South honky tonk circuit. Dann’s good ol’ boy smile charms even passing fans, but in private he is a greedy, entitled, and pitiless tyrant ruling from the back seat of a Cadillac sedan. Set over a day and a half, Payday reveals Maury’s unrepentant selfishness and cynicism, bedding young fans, popping pills, and casting off members of his entourage once they have outlasted his needs. Dann’s self-serving and hedonistic ways come to a head in a late night parking lot scuffle, transforming his megalomania into inevitable self-destruction.

Music critic and Payday producer Ralph Gleason declared that the objective of this staggeringly jaundiced portrait was a desire to provide an honest portrayal of life in the country music business. Under the direction of Daryl Duke (The Silent Partner), Payday rejected the polished image of country music, pointed the way toward the approaching outlaw country movement, and placed a spotlight on the magnetic presence of Rip Torn.

Special Edition Contents:

  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
  • Original mono audio (uncompressed LPCM)
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • Feature-length audio commentary with director Daryl Duke and producer Saul Zaentz
  • Risk Management, a new interview with actor Michael C. Gwynne
  • Ride-along, a new interview with actor Elayne Heilveil
  • Passing Through, a new interview with actor Cliff Emmich
  • The Music Man, a new interview with music supervisor Ed Bogas
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Reversible sleeve featuring two artwork choices

FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing by musician and scholar Kim Simpson

Back in 1988, NWA’s Ice Cube declared that “Life ain’t nothin’ but bitches and money” but that gangsta ethic could just as well have been the subtitle to Daryl Duke’s 1972 country music death trip, Payday. Rip Torn, just three years from being ousted from Easy Rider (Dennis Hooper, 1969) and two years from hitting Norman Mailer with a hammer in Maidstone (Norman Mailer, 1970), found a rare leading role playing Maury Dann, a mid-level country singer eager to exploit his passable popularity for short-term debauchery. Payday opens with Dann singing “She’s Only a Country Girl” (written by Shel “A Boy Named Sue” Silverstein) in some podunk honky-tonk, charming local men with handshakes and feigned interest and winning over middle-aged housewives with flattery and a quick two-step. Dann’s Southern charm is all an act, a sanitized façade that matched the stale version of country music that was widely promoted on Glen Campbell’s Goodtime Hour and The Johnny Cash Show and in the simple-minded guffaws of Hee-Haw. For Dann, the performance is a means to an end. When the bar’s owner asks for a cut of the door next time Maury comes through, Dann snarls that “people in Hell want ice water,” and when Maury’s tour manager, Clarence McGinty (Michael C. Gwynne), proposes that he and the band take a much needed break in Nashville for a couple of weeks to play the Grand Ole Opry, tape a Buck Owens show, and wait for a spot on The Johnny Cash Special, Dann refuses. There’s money to made on the road, after all.

The road provides Maury with a variety of compensations beyond the nightly gate. The after-show party full of gambling and music and the following day’s pheasant hunt before the band hits the road once again are fine, but Dann’s real joy is found in a steady stream of drugs and women. Booze, reefer, and plenty of pills power the singer through a trio of ladies starting with Sandy (Linda Spatz), an office girl brought to Dann’s show by her boss and boyfriend, Bridgeway (Walter Bamberg). Maury coaxes Sandy out to his car with predatory transparency, having little regard her for unease and even less for the fact that his steady girlfriend Mayleen (Ahna Capri) is along for the tour as well. Mayleen understands perfectly who Dann is, sometimes bristling with frustration at Maury’s philandering, purring with attentiveness to remind him of her worth on other occasions. Playing the sex-kitten late in the night, she lounges topless and remarks, “I love you sweet man.” Dann, steely, simply replies, “Thank you, dear” before proceeding with another bout of lovemaking. Later that morning, Maury enrolls a young groupie, Rosamond (Elayne Heilveil), into his entourage, observing that “We only pass this way once; might as well pass by in a Cadillac.” Rosamund joined the party the previous night with Bob Tally (Jeff Morris), one of Dann’s musicians, and was raped by him for her trouble. Still, she hangs around and the sudden appearance of Maury promising a back-stage view of the tour in exchange for some “chores” is enough for her to tag along. Rosamund joins the tour in the backseat of Dann’s Cadillac and even lets Maury get a lay in with her next to a sleeping (and then not sleeping) Mayleen. Rosamund is not exactly an innocent. When confronted by Mayleen, she makes no apologies for her actions and instead makes a power-play, proposing that they let Maury decide.  He does and Mayleen is left at the roadside, coldly denied any Maury Dann-severance package.

For all that Dann is paid by touring and for all that he takes in kind, Maury has to pay to play as well. He’s obliged to keep his Mama Dann (Clara Dunn) stocked in bennies and he has little leverage to resist a local DJ’s payola demands. Dann’s celebrity can’t even liberate him from a speeding ticket issued by fawning state trooper. There are no guarantees passing through this world and Maury is intent to ensure that he pays as little as possible and remains ensconced in his Cadillac for as long as he is able. Even a minor squabble over Maury’s ailing dog turns into a contest of winners and losers, with Bob Tally winning the poor creature in a battle of wills but losing $100 and his place in the band (and with Rosamund) in the process. The tour keeps Maury moving, getting away light before anyone can tally up his real debts and seek their payment in full, and anyone who asks Maury to step down from his throne are likely to find themselves left behind with Mayleen and Bob.

The latter part of Payday finds Maury’s roguish existence catching up with him. An impromptu visit to his ex-wife Galen (Eleanor Fell) humiliates him, revealing him as an absentee father unaware of the age, birth dates, and daily life of his own children. When Maury lets himself into Galen’s home late in the night looking for a tryst to soothe his ego, he finds his ex asleep in bed with another man and all Maury can do is pitch a rock through one of Galen’s windows in juvenile defiance. More significantly, Maury’s dinner is interrupted by a drunken Bridgeway who accuses the singer of raping Sandy, leading to an incident in the parking lot and Maury’s driver Chicago (Cliff Emmich) handling the local authorities. Maury quickly replaces Chicago with Ted (Henry O. Arnold), a devoted young fan he’s just met, but Dann’s Cadillac ride has driven a bridge too far. Local police, the district attorney, and a concerned promoter (plus a long-awaited process server) press Maury to the limit. Dann’s final, futile gambit to escape the real-life consequences of his behaviour is a desperate, nonsensical act that leaves him out of road in more way than one. Rolling Stone music critic and one of the film’s producers, Ralph Gleason, described the film’s intention as one devoted to portraying the country music industry honestly. Payday runs strongly against the grain of Nashville’s public image in music and television and instead presents the fearsome and despairing view of the South found in the cinema. Isolating, dangerous, intolerant, and deluded, Duke’s film comfortably rests among the annihilating gloom of Easy Rider, Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975), and Deliverance (John Boorman, 1972).

The outlaw country movement was taking shape when Payday had its failed limited release in 1972. The subgenre rejected the polished image and formula of the Nashville sound, although Maury Dann is certainly no performer of outlaw country. He does, however, live the life Hank Williams Jr. called the “Family Tradition” – rolling smoke, getting stoned, loving ladies, and loving Jim Beam. Payday features relatively little of Dann the artist and plenty of Dann the outlaw. A single scene shows Dann working out a song but it’s hardly inspiring or redeeming. Maury is a man full of appetites, not passions. He’s one of those classic film characters that starts off as a charming scoundrel and ends up being monster; the sort of protagonist that people admire when they’ve missed the point of the film. Arrow Video is a label that makes room for these feel-bad portraits painted in substance abuse, nihilism, and clever turns of phrase. As a Warner Bros. title, Payday is an unlikely candidate for an AV release, but MMC! can wish that this headlong dive into the shallow end of the Deep South gets the treatment and the spotlight it so truly deserves.

Credits: The audio commentary is ported over from the old Payday DVD, while the interviews are entirely an invention for this imagined edition. Kim Simpson was selected to provide a booklet essay based on his discussion of the film in his book Early ’70s Radio: The American Format Revolution.

This post owes particular thanks to Roger Ebert’s four-star review, Peter Schjeldahl’s 1973 review for The New York TimesPaul Mavis’ DVD review for DVD Talk, Anthony Choan-Miccio’s review for Decider, Nathan Rabin’s review for The A.V. Club, and Caroline Golum’s review at Screen Slate.

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