Watching Rip Torn play the Hank Williams Jr.-esque minor country star Maury Dann in Daryl Duke’s Payday (1973) was bittersweet. It showed me what he might have been had this film not been buried. Jeremy Smith (writing for Chud) pretty much nailed it when he wrote:
If Payday has a reputation, it’s as the movie that should’ve established Torn as one of his generation’s best actors. But the picture - the debut production for Saul Zaentz’s Fantasy Films - never received a wide release, and has since been buried due to a lack of availability and the fact that Torn subsequently went the character actor route. Watching the actor bare-knuckle his way through Payday is to wonder what might’ve been. Though his own erratic behavior probably would’ve kept him from a steady run as a leading man (please Google “Rip Torn” and “Norman Mailer”), there’s no doubt that he was the genuine article - a wilder, scarier, more unpredictable Jack Nicholson. As many have noted, Torn was a man seemingly consumed with violence; when he erupts onscreen, you’re witness to a temporary exorcising of personal demons. He touches depths to which few actors are privy.
Not only was the acting superb, but the direction was impressive as well. It was loose, bare-knuckled and surprisingly enlightening in every way a great ’70s American film ought to be. That it’s taken me so long to find this film is a disappointment. Not only could Rip Torn’s career had gone an entirely different direction had this film been seen, but the former television director Daryl Duke’s could have as well. Rather than going on to do primarily exploitation drive-in fare for the rest of the ’70s and then television epics (The Thorn Birds and Tai-Pan, for instance), he maybe could have had a run at making the sort of films that Hal Ashby, Bob Rafelson and Mike Nichols made for a decade. Instead, his career feels akin to the great-but-underutilized Monte Hellman, whose existential westerns (Ride in the Whirlwind, The Shooting) and cult classics Two-Lane Blacktop and Cockfighter show what might have been had he found producers who believed in him and knew how to sell his work.