There is not a shortage of times where I have expressed my absolutely admiration and adoration for Paul Thomas Anderson. I believe him to be possibly the greatest living filmmaker, and someone that matches the talents of all the greatest filmmakers in history. A cinematic chameleon, Anderson is able to twist and manipulate any genre into fitting his brilliant style and vision. However, one always looks towards his streak of masterpieces, beginning with Boogie Nights and ending with Inherent Vice, but we ignore his roots, and even though he made a short-form documentary that Boogie Nights was inspired by, it is perhaps his first official film, Hard Eight (otherwise known as Sydney) that shows a confident and dedicated young director with a bright future in his hands.
The story is relatively simple – John C. Reilly (then only a small-time character actor) plays a down-on-his-luck young man named John Finnegan who encounters a mysterious stranger, Sydney Brown (played by master character actor Phillip Baker Hall) who takes him under his wing and teaches him the art of playing casinos so that he can win the maximum amount of money, which John intends to use to bury his mother. Two years later, and John and Sydney are close friends, living in Reno. John falls for the cocktail waitress Clementine, who moonlights as a call-girl. A kidnapping attempt and a run from the law cause some shocking revelations about Sydney’s past to come to light, and we see the decline of a brilliant criminal mind. It is ripped straight out of classic film noir thrillers, and is one of the most tight and tense crime dramas of the 1990s, and what makes it so brilliant is how simple the story is, and how Anderson doesn’t attempt to make a profound or important statement about film noir, but rather attempts to make a fun, entertaining and thrilling crime film that was a brilliant debut for the young filmmaker.
For a young man making his directorial debut, Anderson was able to collect quite a cast for this film. John C. Reilly was a hard-working character actor who was given his first major role in this film. Phillip Baker Hall was an equally hard-working character actor, but rather than Reilly, who was about ready to make his leading man debut, Hall was rather a grizzled veteran of bit parts and supporting roles in film and on television, who had his own explosive leading man debut a decade before Hard Eight in Robert Altman’s one-man film, Secret Honor, where Hall played the maddening Richard Nixon. It is bizarre that Anderson chose two unbankable, obscure actors to lead his film, and even stranger is that it wasn’t the young and promising young actor who was given the major role, but rather the elderly character actor who had the most to do.
Much like his good friend Quentin Tarantino, Anderson clearly appreciates veteran actors, especially those that have faded from the spotlight, or just never been in the spotlight to begin with. Of course, Hall gives a tremendous performance, and he shows a great ability to understand the nuances of film noir – he talks like an elderly James Cagney or Humphrey Bogart, exhibiting their no-nonsense attitudes and gruff likability. It is a shame that Hall has not risen to the point of being one of the most beloved and praised actors working today, because if there is a man that deserves to be called the most hard-working actor in Hollywood, it is probably Phillip Baker Hall.
John C. Reilly fared slightly better – although he hasn’t been able to lead too many films (he was absolutely brilliant in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story), but he has found success in being one of the most recognizable supporting actors today, being able to juggle prestige films such as Gangs of New York and The Hours with mainstream comedies such as Step Brothers and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, to some wonderful independent comedies such as Cyrus and Carnage. His collaborations with Paul Thomas Anderson did not begin and end with Hard Eight. Much like Phillip Baker Hall, Reilly went on to star in Anderson’s next two films, and arguably his greatest – Magnolia, where he played a faithful cop, and Boogie Nights, where he plays the goofy Reed Rothchild. Gwyneth Paltrow, who does her best as the conflicted cocktail waitress, does a servicable job, but she somehow doesn’t fit the mould of Anderson’s world. Samuel L. Jackson was great as always, but he seemed to be playing a derivative of the same verbose, philosophical criminal that he has been typecast as. Needless to say, neither Paltrow nor Jackson have worked with Anderson since. For Anderson fans such as myself, you will delight in the small role by the man who would collaborate with Anderson on nearly all of his films, and the tragic genius of cinema, Philip Seymour Hoffman, who has a small but bombastic performance as a craps player in the casino. Hoffman and Anderson were amazing collaborators, and when Hoffman’s life was tragically cut short, it broke my heart that we would never see these two friends work together again.
Hard Eight is a splendid film. I loved it, but not only because I adore Paul Thomas Anderson. It is a powerful, tight and tense thriller that is clearly influenced by film noir and the French New Wave. Phillip Baker Hall is fantastic and gives one of the best performances of the 1990s. John C. Reilly is great, and Paltrow and Jackson do their very best to fit into the world that Anderson creates. As a whole, it is a great debut for a director who will go down in history as one of the greatest of all time.