These days we tend to think of Rip Torn as a character actor, mostly involved in comic tough-guy roles like those in "The Larry Sanders Show," "Men in Black," "Dodgeball," and "Zoom." But the guy's been around for a heck of a long time, over fifty years in movies, and most of those years he spent in straight, serious parts. One of his best starring vehicles was director Daryl Duke's 1972 production "Payday," a film more notable for Torn's acting than for its actual story.
In "Payday" Torn plays Maury Dann, a second-rate country singer trying to make it to the top. It's hard to do, though, because he's self-destructive and possesses only a so-so talent. Still, he's got his own band and his own following, and if he's lucky he'll get to play a Johnny Cash special some day. His latest album is called "Payday," a symbol of that big payoff he's always waiting for. Right now he serves his time playing honky-tonk night clubs and small-town country-western jamborees, and he glories in his low-grade fame. People recognize him, and it feeds his ego.
The trouble is, Maury's bored, angry, frustrated, and unhappy. He spends his evenings singing in bars, his nights sleeping in cheap motels, and his days riding in the backseat of a car. The movie is about the hardships of life in the fast lane, the difficulties making it in the dog-eat-dog entertainment world. This is all about the price people have to pay for a glimpse of fame. Now, with almost anybody else, these might be reasons for an audience to sympathize, but no, because Maury is an arrogant S.O.B. who thinks he's a lot bigger than his modest reality dictates.
Maury is a good ol' boy whose childish, brawling, drinking, pill-popping, womanizing behavior gets old in a hurry. Yet Torn never plays him for a fool. Which may be part of the problem the movie has in ever getting the audience to warm to it. Torn gives it a totally naturalistic shot, his Maury Dann a flesh-and-blood character and not just a caricature. I doubt that Torn has ever had so good a part or put more into it. Nevertheless, the character is so repulsive, it's hard for a viewer to care what happens to him.
Maury's ex-wife is suing him for alimony; his kids don't know him anymore; his old groupie girlfriend (Ahna Capri) is jealous of his philandering; his new groupie girlfriend (Elayne Heilveil) is too naive to understand what's going on around her; and his buddy (Jeff Morris) gets into a fight with him. About the only character we can admire is Maury's driver and bodyguard (Cliff Emmich), a big, kindhearted fellow who'd rather be cooking fine food than baby-sitting a grown-up man-child.
The movie features a slew of good performances, and one can't help respecting its attempt to show a slice of life without compromise. It also contains a number of good songs by Shel Silverstein, Ian & Sylvia, and T. McKinney. That doesn't mean it's much of a good time at the movies, though. The story is relentlessly grim. Plus, there are long stretches where nothing seems to be happening. For instance, a quail shoot makes its point early, then goes on far too long. Mainly, the story line follows Maury's activities for a couple of days, most of the sequences bleak and/or boring for him and for us. The plot never really develops any compelling conflict until it's almost three quarters over, and then events turn so melodramatic that they tend to spoil the realistic tone that preceded them.
So, what we get in "Payday" is an unbending portrayal of an unbending guy, a fellow with an ego the size of Tennessee, who uses the people around him like paper towels and throws them away when he's done. It's an unflattering portrait of probably a lot of celebrities who have lost touch with the real world, always hoping for but not quite reaching the lofty realms they feel are their right.
The movie is a fascinating character study, but it's a long, dark, unhappy trip to the end.
As always, Warner Bros. do everything they can to bring the movie to disc in as good a shape as possible. They preserve the film's 1.85:1 theatrical-release aspect ratio in a high-bit-rate, anamorphic transfer that handles the colors and definition well. You'll find no added artifacts, no halos, no moire effects, almost no signs of age, and only a normal amount of film grain. The latter does add a touch of grittiness to the image, but it's probably how it looked in the original print. Facial tones show up well, too, very natural, as do all of the film's hues.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural sound doesn't fare as well as the video does. The mono contains exceptionally quiet backgrounds, which is the biggest thing in its favor. However, the overall tonal balance is somewhat forward, elevated in the mid-to-upper midrange, giving vocal music and dialogue a bright, edgy, sometimes metallic, sometimes hollow sound. The frequency range and dynamics are only average, meaning it's typical of a mono soundtrack of its day.
The primary bonus item is an audio commentary by director Daryl Duke, who alternates his comments with film producer Saul Zaentz. Zaentz didn't actually produce this film, but he was a friend of the executive producer, jazz writer Ralph J. Gleason, and screenwriter and co-producer Don Carpenter. Zaentz says he has always admired the film, so it's good to have him talk about it. In addition, we get twenty-three scene selections but no chapter insert; a widescreen, anamorphic theatrical trailer; a non-anamorphic widescreen trailer for "The Dukes of Hazzard: The Beginning"; English as the only spoken language; and English subtitles.
Does a great performance make a great film? If so, then "Payday" should have landed at least a few Oscars and won over a few more hearts than it did. Alas, the film picked up only a Writers Guild of America award for screenwriter Don Carpenter. That's OK. It's still an interesting film, if for no other reason than for Torn's acting. Pretty much a downer in every other respect, though; the kind of film that's easy to admire but really hard to like.
"Payday" is a part of Warner Bros.'s third wave of "Directors' Showcase" releases, which also includes Robert Ellis Miller's "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter" (1968), Richard Lester's "The Ritz" (1976), Lee Grant's "Tell Me a Riddle" (1980), and Robert Towne's "Personal Best" (1982). WB have made them all available separately, and they are all first-time DVD releases, sporting all-new transfers.