The Paul Thomas Anderson Rewatch #1: “Hard Eight”
One of the accepted myths of Robert Altman’s career seems to be that after Popeye, his failed 1980 musical version of the classic cartoon, his career took a complete nosedive, creatively as well as financially (though some do praise his made-for-HBO miniseries Tanner ’88) until he resurrected it in 1992 with The Player. The reality, as always, is a little more complicated. It is true Altman, like many directors who became famous in the 70’s, found it hard to get financing for his films in the U.S., especially since he seemed to have a felt need to argue with the studios and the money men. But Altman directed seven movies and part of another (Aria) in the 80’s (which is more than Scorsese was able to get made, and as many as Spielberg made), plus five made-for-TV movies and, as I mentioned before, Tanner ’88. It is true none of them were hits, but then except for M*A*S*H and, to a lesser extent, Nashville, none of Altman’s films were hits to that point in general. Finally, while there were definitely misfires during that time (I think Popeye and Beyond Therapy, also from that decade, are two of the three worst films Altman ever made, along with the 1979 film Quintet), Altman also made a couple of not-bad films (Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean and the made-for-TV The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial) and two of my all-time favorite works of his. One was the previously mentioned Tanner ’88. The other was Secret Honor, which came out in 1984. Like most of the films he did in the 80’s, it was adapted from a play (by Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone, who also wrote the script), but unusually for Altman, who was known for his ensemble films, this was a one-man show. It presented a fictional take on Richard Nixon and his reasons for Watergate and his resignation, and featured a riveting performance by character actor Philip Baker Hall, reprising his stage performance, as Nixon. While it garnered some good reviews – Roger Ebert put it on his top 10 list for that year (it’s number two on mine, behind Streetwise), and Vincent Canby and Pauline Kael also praised it – it met the same box-office fate of most Altman movies, in that hardly anyone saw it upon its initial release. One of the people who did catch up to the film eventually, however, was Paul Thomas Anderson.
I mention all of this because, as Anderson admits in the commentary for Hard Eight, he became a huge fan of Hall after seeing this performance, and when they met each other when Anderson was a production assistant on a PBS special (according to Anderson’s commentary on Hard Eight, the special dealt with the history of campus protest, while according to Sharon Waxman, author of Rebels on the Backlot, the special was about political correctness; IMdB does not seem to have a listing for the name of this special, and Google does not help either), and Anderson told Hall he wanted to write a movie for him. Obviously, this is something an actor hears all the time, and can be taken with a grain of salt. And regardless of Anderson’s sincerity, he was only a production assistant at the time (he had also worked on a program called The Quiz Kids Challenge). Finally, while Hall had been working steadily in theater (where he got his start), television (doing guest appearances on such shows as Family Ties, Falcon Crest, L.A. Law, and Seinfeld, which became his most well-known TV appearance, and he reprised his role in the notorious season finale) and film (in such films as Ghostbusters II – as the police commissioner – Say Anything – as a sympathetic IRS agent – and perhaps most memorable of all, Midnight Run, as an associate of mobster Dennis Farina), he wasn’t an actor who studios would consider bankable. But Anderson kept his word, casting Hall in his short film Cigarettes & Coffee, as a veteran gambler somehow connected to the other four people in the story (a couple who argue and make up, a hitman, and a younger gambler (Kirk Baltz) Hall’s character advises). Anderson also insisted on casting Hall in his first feature film, Hard Eight, or as it was known then, Sydney, after the character Hall would play.
Casting Hall, and writing the part of Sydney in the first place, shows a lot of things about Anderson. For starters, Anderson’s father, who was the promotional voice for ABC and had done extensive work in radio and TV (hosting a horror movie show, among other things), was a large figure in his life, and Anderson admitted on the commentary to Hard Eight he was always looking for other father figures like Hall. Unlike the Mean Streets and Pulp Fiction knock-offs that constituted a number of independent films at the time, Hard Eight, while not shying away from a darker viewpoint (or the violence, though it didn’t have as much in feeling or in practice), was interested in a different viewpoint, and was more empathetic to an older generation (it should be said Tarantino shared this empathy to some extent), which was remarkable considering Anderson was only in his mid-20’s when he started writing the film and shooting it. Finally, the fact Anderson saw something in Hall that allowed him to believe Hall could carry the part of Sydney shows his insight and his trust of actors, which has continued throughout his career.
Essentially, though it doesn’t seem like it at first, Hard Eight is a mystery film. Why is Sydney helping out John (John C. Reilly), especially when it’s clear John is wary of him at first (he assumes Sydney is trying to pick him up)? Did he know John’s family somehow back in the day? Is he trying to atone for something? Or is he simply looking for a protégé? All we know is John needs money to bury his mother, and Sydney knows enough about Reno (where the movie is set) and gambling to know how John at least can make enough money to survive (the scam Sydney teaches John, involving a rate card, is one Anderson pulled a couple times but which he says under current rules in Nevada is impossible), and he has connections to help him with the rest. But Anderson, and Hall, are able to make us curious about Sydney, and want to know more about him. He’s a man who values simple courtesy (he even lectures John about it when they first meet), seems very careful about himself (he’s well groomed) and what he reveals, and he obviously has street smarts, but Anderson and Hall only gradually reveal what’s inside. And the fact they’re able to do it without much expository dialogue, and often just with subtle gestures, is one of the things I like so much about the movie.
Another aspect of the movie I like so much is the attitude it takes towards gambling. Most movies I’ve seen about gambling are either about addiction, or someone going for the big score or using it as a con. There’s no denying the drama in the former, or the delight of the latter, if they’re done well. But there are also the gamblers who know enough not to play for the big score, but are careful, just trying to do enough to make a living, with maybe the occasional risk, and Sydney fits right in to that category. He plays cards (poker, it looks like), bets on craps – we see him betting on a game played by Philip Seymour Hoffman – and Keno (“it helps pass the time”). You get the feeling Sydney might have tried for the big score before, but now settles for occasionally betting on someone trying to roll a “hard eight” at the craps table (refers to rolling two fours, which is the least likely combination of getting an eight). And it’s obvious he teaches John what he’s learned, not just with the scam, but when the action picks up two years after Sydney and John first meet, and the way John carries himself compared to before. He may still idolize Sydney and follow him around as one might follow their personal hero, but John is his own man, and that applies to his gambling as well (each of the times Sydney asks John afterwards if he needs money, John assures Sydney he’s fine there, and we believe it). And there’s no moralizing taken towards the type of gambling they do; since they’re not addicted, and not trying to hurt anyone.
That same lack of moralizing also extends to the other major characters in the movie. Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a cocktail waitress whom Sydney befriends and, as we find out later, whom John is attracted to and involved with. She calls Sydney “Captain” because he reminds her of a captain of a ship (when John, learning of this, tries to call him “Captain”, Sydney gently chides him that only Clementine gets to call him that), and he in turn treats her with a fatherly affection. Clementine is the one who gets Sydney to open up somewhat about his past life (he was married and divorced, has a son and daughter he doesn’t see anymore, both about her age or a little older), and he in turn passes no judgement on her job, even when he sees her coming out of someone’s motel room one night as part of her other job. Like Sydney, Clementine sees things in practical terms; she puts up with other men trying to flirt with her when she’s waiting on them because if she doesn’t, her bosses question her and that could mean losing her job. She also has no illusions about her other job as a prostitute – she tells Sydney she’s not someone who dreams of making enough money to open up a shop somewhere – though she is cynical enough about men that she does make an assumption about Sydney’s intentions when he lets her spend the night in his hotel room. Sydney, however, is able to disabuse her assumptions without acting offended – or at least, overly offended – and their relationship stays friendly, at least until the first main plot twist kicks in.
The other major character in the movie is Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson), John’s friend, who runs security inside one of the casinos. It’s through Jimmy that Anderson sets up the conflict that will happen in the last third of the movie, between him and Sydney, so you could argue Jimmy is nothing more than a plot device. But the way Anderson handles that is instructive. Take the first meeting between the two of them in the movie. It’s when the story has jumped two years ahead, and Sydney has just been chatting with Clementine and has received his drink when he’s told that Jimmy has paid for it. Jimmy is with John, and Sydney waves them over (they pass Clementine on the way over, and the look the two of them give each other, and the way Anderson and cinematographer Robert Elswit pull the camera back from John, suggests their attraction to each other, and maybe more). John re-introduces Jimmy, and Sydney shakes his hand easily enough, and thanks him for the drink, but makes him wait until John has already seated himself at his booth before asking Jimmy to do the same. Then, when John tells Sydney that Jimmy works at the Sand Dunes, and Jimmy explains he does consulting work and security on busy nights, Sydney, still smiling, asks, “Parking lot?” (Jimmy actually handles all security inside the casino) Is Sydney being racist (Anderson says in the commentary he wouldn’t mind that interpretation, as Sydney is “old-school”), or does he just not like Jimmy? It’s open to either interpretation, but Anderson doesn’t force it; Jimmy does needle Sydney about playing Keno now after being a hot-shot gambler back in the day (Jimmy tells the story of seeing Sydney in Vegas making a “big-ass bet” on a hard eight), while Sydney chides Jimmy for making an explicit remark about all the women in the casino as a waitress walks away, and after a bit of back and forth between them on that, John, sensing the tension, suggests to Jimmy they go play at the tables. Sydney and Jimmy part on friendly enough terms – Jimmy promising Sydney anything he needs, as he’s the man with connections – but you know things aren’t right between them. Sure enough, later in the movie, after the first plot twist kicks in – John and Clementine get into trouble that Sydney has to bail them out of – and Jimmy contacts Sydney, you know that tension will come to the surface, and you’ll find out the source of that tension.
You also find out, both in the situation John and Clementine get into and Sydney’s next meeting with Jimmy, more about Sydney. He may seem like the genial “Captain”, but as I said before, he also has street smarts, and he also shows the toughness underneath – the situation with John and Clementine is the first time you hear him swearing, and the way he takes command, you obviously know he’s been in this situation before. And when he has his next meeting with Jimmy, Sydney insists on taking the upper hand, smoking in Jimmy’s car even after Jimmy asks him not to, and asking in a belligerent tone what he wants. But Jimmy proves he’s no fool, drawing out the scene by talking to him about John and Clementine’s situation (it turns out Jimmy was also involved), and then revealing the real reason for the meeting; he knows about Sydney’s past, and how it relates to why Sydney offered to help John in the first place. Jackson handles this part very well, going from genial to menacing on a dime, and never becoming a stereotype (in the commentary, Hall mentions while he admired Jackson’s work, and they had both been in the remake of Kiss of Death, they hadn’t worked together in it, so he was looking forward to it, and they brought out the best in each other). I don’t want to give away the mystery, but the way it’s handled, especially through this character conflict, is worth it, because Anderson never sacrifices character for plot.
Anderson had a long, protracted with battle with Rysher Entertainment (the film’s distributor) over this film; they forced him to change the name of the film from Sydney to Hard Eight, they cut the film without his approval, and they were going to release that version in theaters until Anderson’s cut played better with both preview and festival audiences (also, Jackson and Paltrow said they would both publicly disown the movie unless Anderson’s cut was released), at which point the studio reluctantly agreed to release Anderson’s somewhat cut version. As it stands, there are a few pacing problems, especially in the scene where Sydney finds out about the situation Clementine and John have gotten themselves in. And there’s a deleted scene on the DVD that would have given more depth to Clementine and John’s relationship had it been in the movie. Still, Anderson is able to show his empathy for his characters and the emotional connections between them, both of which he’d develop in his later years. And, of course, it helps he has a great cast to work with. In recent years, Reilly has developed a clueless guy shtick (or an overbearing guy shtick) that has become annoying, but here, he makes John three-dimensional and believable, especially in a phone call with Sydney near the end of the movie. Paltrow doesn’t condescend to her character, and makes Clementine’s vulnerability and her hard shell believable. And, as I said before, Jackson never overdoes his character. But the movie rests on Hall, and he delivers. In the scene where Sydney is betting on a game involving Hoffman’s character, it’s meant to show the first sort of kink in Sydney’s armor, but again, Hall never makes it obvious that he’s flustered, and he keeps that tone throughout. He’s also excellent in the big emotional scene he has on the phone with John near the end, as well as when he shows us the darkness inside him after that. As I’ll show in my post about Magnolia, this wouldn’t be the last time Anderson built a central character around Hall and got him to deliver, but Hard Eight is a good demonstration of both of their abilities.