Warner Bros. // 1973 // 103 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // February 4th, 2008
36 Hours in the Life of a Madman
Maury Dunn (Rip Torn, The Man Who Fell to Earth) is one of country's biggest hillbilly music stars. He is wealthy beyond his wildest dreams and lives a life of exceeding excessive, from pill popping to bed hopping. During the last leg of his latest tour, he has some trouble with his band, and needs manager Clarence McGinty (Michael C. Gwynne, The Terminal Man) to do what he does best -- clean up his client's messes. Things get worse when longtime lover Mayleen Travis (Ahna Carpi, Enter the Dragon) gets jealous over the sudden arrival of new, nubile hanger-on Rosamond McClintock (Elayne Heilveil, Winter Kills). Suddenly, Dunn's life is in real turmoil. He can't seem to find a direction, though he has less than 36 hours to make it to Birmingham for a big gig. If he misses it, his career might as well be over. After all, no one is really interested in the washed-up sleazeball for his art. It's the Payday that they're after.
Payday is the kind of complex character study that '70s cinema thrived on. It offers a devilish knowledge of the subject matter -- in this case, pre-show business country music -- and the people who populate it. It contains a sly performance by Rip Torn, and a cast of supporting players who supplement his sliminess perfectly. If it weren't for the limited life in a day dynamic, a storyline that tries to cram 36 years of living into 36 hours of rock 'n roll tour busing, we'd really feel the punch of Don Carpenter's tell-all screenplay. But because things are so eventful, because main character Maury Dunn goes through break-ups, domestic strife, and legal limbo before traveling to the next town, we tend to feel overwhelmed. We wonder who will die of exhaustion first -- us or our speed-balling antihero. Director Daryl Duke does try to dial things down now and then, keeping the situations from slipping over into manipulation or melodrama. But there are aspects of the story, including one completely annoying female groupie, that tend to trip everyone up. In the end, we are worn out and wasted, wondering how anyone, let alone a fictional singer songwriter, could handle such a gratuitous grind.
Torn is indeed quite good, though you'd never guess that he's actually distilled from Western roots (he's a Texas boy by birth). There is just something that's quasi-contemporary and city slick about this supposed good ol' boy. Still, he pulls it off with anarchic aplomb. On the other end of the believability scale is Elayne Heilveil, yanking one of those patented "howdy y'all" accents out of her ass to remind us of her non-Southern roots. Her character, the home-wrecking wench with the improbable name of Rosamond McClintock, is supposed to represent starry eyed idolatry. But her good girl playing hard-to-hump ditz grows old very quickly. When Torn finally grows tired of her, we wonder what took him so damn long. She tends to wipe out the good work done by Michael Gwynne (as Dunn's no-nonsense manager), Cliff Emmich (as dependable chauffer/bodyguard Chicago), and Ahna Capri (as cast-off lover Mayleen Travis). Granted, there are other individual stumbling blocks here and there -- Dunn's drug-addled mother, a young aspiring singer who looks like a lost surfer -- that tend to get in the way as well.
But thanks to Duke's attention to interpersonal detail, to his backroads of America approach to setting and locale, we let many of the missteps slide. The movie crackles with an enigmatic energy that's hard to decipher at first. It doesn't come from the performance aspects of the film, even when Torn gets a bout of post-problem inspiration. It doesn't derive from the main narrative thread, since the story basically stumbles around Dunn and his soiled sphere of influence. Still, the kinetic sense is there, the feeling that this is life really being lived -- for good, for bad, for callously indifferent. It appears in little places: the standoff between Dunn and a cynical DJ; the look in the character's face when he realizes he may have finally done something that his manager can't correct; a friendly game of poker that turns into an impromptu hoedown. Payday is saved time and time again by the winking confessional of the script, and Duke's control of it. Even when Torn goes off the rails and overanalyzes his character's crappier side, the movie always finds a way to rearrange his obstacles. It makes for a compelling, if incomplete experience.
Though it feels like another one of Warner's fire-sale selections, the technical situation with Payday is actually better than such a sell-off would suggest. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image is excellent, filled with Southern sweat and green pasture presence. Duke captures the road with just the right amount of two-lane blacktopping, and the whole atmosphere is one of booze-soaked skin and sour individual defeat. The sonic circumstances are also top notch. While sticking to a basic Dolby Digital Mono 1.0 mix, the dialogue is always discernible and the music a melding of cornpone sturm and Hee Haw drang. As for added content, the studio steps up and lets director Duke and producer Saul Zaentz add a full-length audio commentary to the disc. Clearly ill when the track was recorded, the filmmaker is just not up to a detailed discussion of his work here. But Zaentz steps up to offer some context, so the enterprise isn't an entire loss. There's also an interesting trailer which tends to oversell the movie as an exploitation effort. In fact, it's a thoughtful, if occasionally too brash, Music City bio.
Rip Torn was one of the most misunderstood actors of the '70s. He was never the equal to far more famous names like Nicholson, Redford, Newman, or Pacino. But in Payday, he proves he can carry an intricate, introspective piece with flair and fire. While this movie may not be everyone's idea of entertaining pickin' and grinnin', it definitely is winnin' -- most of the time.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Year: 1973
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Theatrical Trailer
* Commentary by Director Daryl Duke and Producer Saul Zaentz