Author's Note: The essay below is a slightly revised version of a talk I gave at a convention in Nashville in 1979. What I left out of that original essay was that when I first saw PAYDAY in 1976, it brought back my complicated relationship with my father, a womanizing alcoholic drug addict (a pharmacist and high-functioning morphine addict, he joined the Navy right after Pearl Harbor and spent the war dispensing uppers to submarine and flight crews, and came back with a methamphetamine addiction). In the late ‘40s, shortly after my mother kicked him out, he became a sales representative for the Eli Lilly drug company with a territory along the western half of Mississippi up to the Tennessee border. In the summer of 1950, when I was twelve and already taller than he was, he taught me to drive his new stick-shift Studebaker on the road to Nashville, where he brought party favors to his friend Hank Williams. Along the way, over a period of days, he visited doctors and pharmacists, bars and honky-tonks, and various of the lady friends and drinking buddies he had cultivated along his sales route. To put it simply, as I watched PAYDAY the first time, I found myself reliving that trip.
And having spent a lot of time driving my MGA around south-central Alabama in 1962-63 when I was teaching in Mobile, I recognized the area where it was shot near Selma.
Why is PAYDAY relevant today? I’m not sure it is, any more than any classic is. It is also an artifact created by now-dead artists who did not come from the south: a director from Canada, a song-writer (Shel Silverstein from Chicago), a screenwriter from California, and a star (Rip Torn, who died a few months ago) who was born in Texas but spent most of his career outside the south.
“You ought to see what I’ve been picking up off the road. One fantasy after another.” – Warren Oates as GTO, in Two Lane Blacktop.
Back in 1979, when I learned the Popular Culture Association in the South was meeting in Nashville, I knew I had to do something with Payday, that little-known, rarely seen memento mori of a film about a lucky man who blew his mind out in a car on the road to Nashville. Like many others, I first saw Payday in 1976 when it as brought back, three years after its initial release, to exploit the popularity of Robert Altman’s Nashville. In fact, I saw it on a triple bill with Nashville and John Avildsen’s W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings, in which Burt Reynolds helps a group of unknowns make the big time at Grand Ol’ Opry. Of the three films, Payday struck me then and now as the most interesting in spite of its obviously minuscule budget, largely unknown cast (headed by Rip Torn), and cold-blooded direction by Daryl Duke, a Canadian veteran of American television making his feature debut.
Payday interested me because it has the touch of a single literate vision – that of novelist Don Carpenter, who wrote the script and produced the film. How did the project get started, I asked. Carpenter. Here is his reply: “I was sitting on Shel Silverstein’s houseboat in Sausalito and he was telling me a lot of stories about Waylon Jennings and others, and I said it could make a good movie. He agreed and asked only to write the music. I wrote a treatment and got turned down all over Hollywood because I insisted on artistic control. Then found Fantasy Films in Berkeley, who gave me that control. We were off to the races.”
This control allowed Carpenter, who had never produced a film before, to participate “in every detail of the production, with veto power over every artistic decision … Ralph J. Gleason, late senior editor of [Rolling Stone], kept the money people, the lawyers, etc., off my back. My co-producer, who got the single screen producer credit, received that credit from me, as did the director his job, and the answer print its color tones. It’s safe to say, if there ever was an auteur, it was I.”
Payday also interested me because it had trouble finding release (completed in 1971, it was turned down by Universal, Warner Brothers, Twentieth-Century Fox, and Columbia before being dumped on the market in early 1973 by Cinerama Releasing) and then died at the box office in spite of the fact it was generally well-received by the critics and made the Ten Best lists of the Boston Globe and L.A. Times. A year and a half after its release, Payday had given the lie to its own title by returning to its backers a mere hundred thousand dollars on an investment of almost eight hundred thousand.
Why am I interested in box office receipts? Allow me to propound Smith’s Dictum: to wit, the serious student of popular culture should be particularly interested in two box office extremes: the well-made, intelligent film that fails to make back its print cost – and the poorly-made or mediocre product that makes tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. My dictum assumes that as Payday is an item in the market place, it can be compared to other brands or makes or models. Look on the shelf next to the single dusty can of Payday and you’ll find a hundred cases of Smokey and the Bandit. The basic ingredients may look the same (speeding cars on the back roads of the South, footloose girls, and restless conmen heroes – legends in their own time who spend that time, in Bandit’s words, showing off), but Smokey, which has grossed more than two hundred million dollars, is mainly sugar – bad for the teeth, worse for the soul. There is almost no sugar in Payday (the movie, not the candy bar); perhaps that is why it did so poorly at the box office.
Sticky metaphors aside, there is one very good reason why Payday remains an unpopular product in the supermarket of popular culture. I am referring to the film’s refusal to honor the chief convention of the road picture genre: the sympathetic portrayal of the figure in motion. In damning its protagonist, Maury Dann, for his inability to stand still, Payday goes against the flow of the traffic and becomes an antitype against which to measure every other road picture – and that is what interests me most about Payday.
The great American Road Picture. I sometimes wonder if it isn’t beginning to replace the road itself, at least in emotional terms. “The Open Road goes to the used-car lot,” laments Louis Simpson in a poem addressed to Walt Whitman. And today, I wrote back in 1979, the open road ends at the drive-in or in the parking lot of the suburban mall, where we sit in the dark and listen to the voices of America on the move:
“I’ve been around, you know,” says poor old GTO in Two Lane Blacktop. “I get to one end of the country and I bounce off like a rubber ball and head right back to the other side.”
“Are we there yet?” Tommy asks Alice, who doesn’t live there anymore.
“You know,” Bonnie complains to Clyde, “when we started out, I thought we was really going somewhere. But this is it. We’re just goin’, huh?”
“Listen,” says GTO, “I don’t know where I’m going. You probably didn’t suspect that, but it’s all I can do just to keep moving.”
Just to keep moving. Why do we Americans feel we must keep moving? D. H. Lawrence thought he had the answer: we keep moving because we don’t know how to stand still; we race outwards because we’re afraid of looking inward. “It is the American heroic message,” Lawrence said of Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road”: “The soul is not to pile up defenses around herself. She is not to withdraw and seek her heavens inwardly … She is to go down the open road, as the road opens, into the unknown … accomplishing nothing save the journey, and the works incident to the journey.”
Why do we keep moving? Our movies rarely ask the question, for the answer is obvious to any faithful moviegoer: if you run out of gas in Texas, the cannibals will chew you up with their chainsaws and turn you into sausage; run out of gas in rural Pennsylvania, and the living dead will eat you raw; pause along Damnation Alley, and the man-eating cockroaches will pick you clean. And if you stop for the night near Macon County Line, someone’s bound to take offense and shoot you dead. As the TV commentator warns in Death Race 2000, “How fast you move determines how long you live.”
All through the ‘seventies, we were swamped with movies about people moving on. Those fantasies were often as transient and destructive of the psychic landscape as the roadside culture they mimiced. At best, they provided us with a kind of emotional documentary of a world that was coming apart as fast or faster than the legal speed allowed. Consider, for a moment, three of the most broadly popular pictures of the decade: Harry and Tonto, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and Paper Moon. Two of these films spawned television series and all three won Academy Awards for acting.  I suspect those Oscars had little to do with the acting abilities shown in these particular roles – and much to do with the wish-fulfillment nature of the roles themselves: a crazy old man, a crazy matron, and a crazy kid who find happiness by escaping the suffocating apartments, the hateful tract houses, and the dull and deathly parlors called home. A motel is an improvement, these films seem to whisper, because it makes no claim on us – no family pictures stare from the walls, no memories clutter the closets. As a lady in The Waste Land might have said, in a Howard Johnson’s we feel free, watching TV much of the night.
For years now I have been collecting celluloid fantasies about the culture spawned by the automobile. I hope you’ll take my word for it that Payday is something very rare: a road picture that presents a totally negative vision of the road and of the man who makes it his way of life. I know of only one other film, Five Easy Pieces, that comes even close to the dark vision of Payday. Released at the start of the ‘seventies road picture explosion, and a year before Payday went into production, Five Easy Pieces ends with Jack Nicholson’s Bobby finishing the process of cutting himself loose by abandoning his girl friend in a filling station and hitching a ride on a truck heading north. Doesn’t he have a jacket, the truck driver asks.
Bobby: “Jesus, it got burned up. Everything in the car got burned up. Everything.”
Truck driver: “I’ll tell you one thing, where we’re going it’s gonna get colder than hell.”
Payday picks up where Five Easy Pieces leaves off: the central character is a burned-out case who, though he doesn’t know it when we first see him, is already dead. Oh, he sings and drinks and dopes and fornicates and fools around, but these are only post-mortem effects. He is dead and in hell.
Come along with me on a passage through the underworld of Maury Dann. The landscape may look familiar, the road well traveled, and the settings commonplace, but the journey is well worth the trouble, for although Payday looks like a typical road picture, the moral iconography is distorted, as though Greek tragedy and the medieval morality play have been welded together and set on wheels.
The movie opens with the camera moving through the car choked parking lot of the roadhouse where Maury (Rip Torn) is performing. After singing his sentimental favorite, “Country Girl,” Maury gets a real country girl alone in the parking lot. She babbles at Maury, who says nothing until he kicks the side of a white Cadillac limousine. “Like my car?” he asks, and flicks ashes on its hood. Luring the girl into the backseat with the promise of an album, Maury soon has the car rocking on the springs of his passion. So much for our introduction to Maury, a man who (according to the script<) “does nothing at half speed”: his car is at the center of his world, a conversational gambit, a portable dispenser of mementoes, an ash tray, a place to get his ashes hauled, and – as we shall see – the hauler of Maury’s ashes.
At the motel that night, Maury’s manager, a choral figure, tries to slow him down: “We’ve been on the road three months,” the manager warns, asking Maury to take a long rest once he gets to Nashville. “God damn it, man,” Maury shoots back, “There’s money to be made on the road.” Maury’s refusal to stop or to see what the road is doing to him is balanced by the stability of his estranged wife. “Don’t you come in off the road and tell me how to raise kids,” she says just before he hits her. “I know you’re sorry,” she says after the blow; “I know it was an accident – you came in all tense off the road.”
Maury’s simple answer, “Bullshit,” cuts two ways: it warns us not to blame everything on the road, which is, after all, an out let for Maury’s nervous energy – but it also demonstrates his blindness to the danger of the road.
Figures at rest being anathema in the movies, Maury will stay in motion for the thirty-six hours his story takes to tell. The time span itself is note-worthy, for it is the time needed to cross America from coast to coast in two recent non-stop dashes against death and boredom, Cannonball and Gumball Rally. But Maury will not even get out of Alabama, where most of the film was shot, for Payday is a death race fever of the soul.
Early on, the film begins to assemble hints that things are not going well for Maury, who cannot sleep. He tries to make a phone call, but can’t get through; he turns on the television, but there is no image; he wakes up his mistress, Mayleen, but his face goes dead when she speaks of love. The lines of communication are down. He is, as he says to Mayleen, “all fucked out.”
At dawn, still without sleep, he speeds off to do a little hunting and visit his widowed, bedridden, worn-out, old-before her-time mother at the family farm he has spent his life fleeing. Finding Mom unable to get out of bed, he rains on her a multi colored shower of pills: uppers, downers, and the little polka dotted ones that make you go sideways, and sets out for the fields. The hunting is photographed as idyllic: soft focus, misty, full of autumn colors. But suddenly the mood is broken as a nervous camera zooms in on Maury’s Cadillac, its motor throbbing, waiting. We can explain to ourselves as we watch, that Chicago, the fat driver, is probably keeping the engine running so he can use the air conditioning, but the total effect is that the car itself has some kind of independent existence, some kind of power over Maury.
By the time Maury gets back to the house (vinyl-clad on the outside, primitive plumbing on the inside – a study in false surfaces), the pills he gave his mother have done their work: she is jumping up and down like a hyperactive kid as she hangs out the laundry. The audience laughs, but old Mrs. Dann’s miraculous rejuvenation provides an ominous background to the fight that develops in the foreground as Maury and his best friend argue over Maury’s neglect of his favorite dog, then come to blows. He fires the friend, gives or sells him the dog, and speeds off as the camera remains behind to show us the friend and dog walking slowly out of frame.
Is his mother’s fate what is in store for Maury? Can a father less, friendless, dogless man long endure?
Back at the motel, Maury invites a local girl named Rosamond to join him in his Southeast Passage: ‘We only pass this way once – might as well pass by in a Cadillac.” He has his way with Rosamond on the back seat of the speeding limousine while Chicago watches in the mirror and Mayleen sleeps fitfully beside them, a horoscope magazine open on her lap. What is in the stars for Maury?
He argues with Mayleen over a scrapbook found in the litter of the back seat and then – in the divorce ritual of the open road – throws her out of the car. Twice the limousine squeals away from the abandoned woman, twice it burns rubber coming back – a two-ton yo-yo on the string of passion or responsibility or memory. Finally, the string breaks and the Caddy screeches away forever and we are left alone beside the road with Mayleen. Almost immediately, a snappy red convertible stops and a middle-aged sugar daddy invites her in (you only pass this way once, so you might as well pass in a red convertible), and we suspect her affair with Maury began in the same way and that his with Rosamond will end just so.
Having visited his old mother and shed his old mistress, Maury now stops by to slap around his old wife. Out in the car, meanwhile, we witness a strange and wonderful scene that illustrates better than any other Payday’s conscious shattering of road picture conventions. I am referring to the exchange that begins when the usually taciturn Chicago suddenly asks Rosamond if she likes to cook. Nonplussed by this very personal question, she confesses that she is addicted to fast food: “You know, Colonel Sanders and McDonald’s. I swear, I’ve ate three thousand McDonald’s hamburgers.”
In response, Chicago pulls out his favorite frying pan and talks about how he makes omelets and how he never washes his pan but cleans it with a paper towel. Why doesn’t he get himself one of those new non-stick pans, she asks – “We sell a lot of them at the dime store.” Chicago’s scorn for Teflon-coated pans and their plastic advocates so unsettles Rosamond that she blurts, “Hey, what are you … I thought you were a driver.” “Chief cook and bottle washer,” he answers with a sad dignity that should make it clear he was not making out with Rosamond or even making small talk, but checking her out as a rival or replacement – for it is Chicago who provides the steady “feminine” center of Maury’s existence. Mistresses and groupies may come and go, but as long as the chief cook and bottle washer is at the wheel, nothing really bad can happen to Maury.
But that night, in another parking lot, Maury stabs the drunken boyfriend of the girl he seduced in that first parking lot the night before. “Fix it,” he barks at his manager, as though the corpse is a busted transmission. When the manager refuses, Maury turns to the stoic Chicago, offering him the bloody knife: “Think you can stand still for this one?” Then, to a witness he is bribing, Maury repeats the formula: “I’m asking my associate … to stand in for me. Do you understand?”
The man of action never stands still in our movies – that is the conventional role of the woman or her surrogate. Chicago, named for a place not known for moving about much, gives Maury the car keys, and Maury hires a busboy named Ted to take his place. Bad move: Ted, who unwittingly set the parking lot killing in motion, is as unstable and ambitious as Maury. As the camera pulls back from the figure of Maury listening to Ted sing one of his songs in the fatal parking lot, we know that Maury is trapped in a hell of his own making.
It is now late on the second night of Maury’s passage; again his manager asks him to get some rest, but Maury can’t sleep. Feeling his world is coming apart, he tries to hold it together through memory by writing a song about the wife he has left behind. And then, before dawn, he hits the road, with Ted at the wheel, for a return visit to his wife in search of “the hand that I once clung to, now all that’s holding me.” But there’s nothing and no one left to hold Maury: his wife is in bed with another man and Maury has to burn rubber again.
After a sequence of tire-squealing escapes from reality, Maury reaches the extremity of his neural flight – at the wheel of the limousine, headed for nowhere as the band plays “Dixie.” At this point I would like to remind the reader of a key passage in the Initial Manifesto of Futurism: “Literature has hitherto glorified thoughtful immobility … and sleep,” Marinetti proclaimed in 1909; “we shall extoll aggressive movement, feverish insomnia … We shall sing of the man at the steering wheel.” Maury Dann is that once futuristic man at the steering wheel, that aggressive and feverish insomniac – but Payday makes it clear such a man is no longer the ideal hero of the future, but an anachronism as tired and useless as the fins on the dreamboat cars of the ‘fifties.
As Maury speeds down the road, he begins to tell Ted the story of his life: how when he was twelve, he ran away from the fields of home – the same kind of fields through which they are now passing on a red dirt road – to make something of his life, something other than a life of sweat in those fields. He is gravity’s rainbow, but the earth is trying to pull him back. He has Ted play “Country Girl” on the harmonica while he sings along, happy as a bedbug at the wheel.
It’s a fine and beautiful scene, and Maury Dann is clearly an archetypal mad American poet, a bastard child of D. H. Lawrence’s Walt Whitman, who “drove an automobile with a very fierce headlight, along the track of a fixed idea, through the darkness of this world. And he saw everything that way. Just as a motorist does in the night.”
I can still remember how that scene moved me – wanting it to go on but knowing that it must end and wondering how it could end. Would the car go out of control and smash into something? Would the film end on a sudden freeze frame, or would we just see the car going down the road into the distance and know that nothing could ever stop Maury? Before I could exhaust the possibilities, Maury exhausted himself: he gasped, his dead eyes rolled up, and the limousine roared off the road and plowed to a stop in the red dust Maury fled as a child.
Good old Maury Dann – he was all heart, but the warranty ran out.
Maury Dann – the very type and mold of the popular artist and politician in America: the man (or woman) who must go where the people are. Remember Robert Penn Warren’s Willie Stark roaring up the down those country roads with Chicago’s uncle Sugar Boy at the wheel in All the King’s Men, and listen to Jimmy Carter’s description of his campaign for governor: “On a typical day I would … drive somewhere in Georgia to make a speech, and return home late at night. … I left everything I cared for – my farm, my family, my bird dogs – and my wife and I went in opposite directions.”
Well, this has been a rather depressing trip, so it’s time for happy endings.
Here’s what I wrote forty years ago: Jimmy Carter (and his driver Jody) finally got off that road and found a nice place to stay and invited his old friend Willie Nelson to come sing him a song. And Waylon Jennings, one of the originals of Maury Dann, is still going strong, faster and faster every day. And the people from Fantasy Films, the people who put up the money for Payday, got it all back – and more – for their second effort, a modest little film about a guy with the initials R. P. M. who steals a busload of loonies but runs (so to speak) out of gas.
Both fantasies from Fantasy Films – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Payday – end with the hero dead and his disciple on the run. There the similarities end, for the Fantasy people learned their lesson from the failure of Payday – they learned not to monkey around with the crazy and liberating drives that characterize the road picture, even when it takes a detour through the madhouse.
A final word from Don Carpenter, the father of Payday: “Fantasy Films is really a man named Saul Zaentz, who simply does what he wants, and he wanted to do Payday and Cuckoo’s Nest. I suppose if we’d done then in reverse order, I would have cast Jack N. as Maury and made a nice bland yeah-but-he’sso-cute movie and a fortune. As it is, the fortune would now have been dissipated and the picture forgotten, I’d be sitting in a big Beverly Hills house all alone, forgotten, hated by the servants for my unpredictable outbursts of rage, sobbing, etc. As it stands, I’m happy, popular, good at games, etc. But poor as a Christian.”
 Quotations from Carpenter are taken from letters he wrote me in September and October of 1976.
 “Producer Dream: to Recover the Film,” Variety, 19 June 1974, p. 7.
 I have examined another Oscar-winning road picture, Lilies of the Field, in another issue of The Journal of Popular Film: see “Getting Stuck in America: Two Interrupted Journeys,” JPF, 5 (1976), 95-108.
 I have deposited a copy of the shooting script and the cutting con tinuity in the Film Study Department at the Museum of Modern Art.
Editor's Note: This story originally published in Volume 7, 1979 - Issue 2 of the Journal of Popular Film & Television published by Taylor & Francis, which maintains an online archive at TandFonline.com.
Image Credit: all of the images of the movie Payday in this story are rights protected by the via IMDB.com (promotional/fair use).