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Hard Eight (1997)

December 2nd, 2007 · 3 Comments

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Synopsis
Outside a coffeeshop in Reno, Nevada, Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) approaches a busted out loser named John (John C. Reilly). He invites the man inside to have a cup of coffee and a cigarette. John remains surly, until Sydney advises him, “Never ignore a man’s courtesy.” John says that he needs $6,000, claiming it’s to bury his mother. Sydney offers to give him $50 and show him what he did wrong if he accompanies him back to Vegas.

Sydney takes John to a casino. Starting with only $150, John is shown how to cash in that amount against a rate card he asks the floor manager to provide him. Sydney has John spend $20 of that as slowly as he can at a slot machine for show, then cash $100 in tokens, increasing the amount on his rate card to $250. Circling the casino all day, John ends up with $2,000 in credit and a comp room. Impressed, he asks Sydney if this is what he does. “Not anymore.”

Two years later in Reno, Sydney befriends a cocktail waitress named Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow). She calls Sydney “Captain” because of the way John follows his mentor around. John introduces his friend – a smooth talking security consultant named Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson) – to Sydney. Jimmy’s flagrant attitude toward the waitresses offends Sydney. Jimmy attempts to set the old timer straight: “Half the women who work here are take home whores anyway.”

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Sure enough, Sydney discovers that Clementine is selling herself to make ends meet. He gives her a place to stay, matches her up with John and sends them to buy clothes. Several hours later, Sydney receives an anxious phone call. He’s summoned to a motel room, where John and Clementine have gotten themselves into a fix. Sydney helps smooth things over, sending the couple to Niagara Falls, while he stays behind to deal with the loose ends of their mistake.

Production history
Paul Thomas Anderson was son of veteran voice actor and TV host Ernie Anderson, best known as the announcer for The Love Boat. Anderson grew up in Studio City. He was an admittedly restless and poor student who began making amateur movies at age 12 when his father bought a Betamax video camera. Anderson was working as a production assistant on a PBS special in 1992 when he got the chance to meet character actor Philip Baker Hall.

Anderson had seen Hall play Richard Nixon in Robert Altman’s Secret Honor and felt he was one of the greatest actors in America, if not the greatest. He told Hall he had a script for a short film he wanted to send him. Titled Cigarettes & Coffee, Hall agreed to appear as a character named Sydney. The 24-minute film was screened at the Sundance Film Festival, where Anderson met a producer named Robert Jones who talked him into expanding his short to feature length.

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The idea Anderson had was to take a character like Jimmy Cagney’s in White Heat and pick up with him 30 years down the road, as he searches for redemption. He titled his script Sydney and insisted that Hall play the title role. Luckily, Samuel L. Jackson and a new star named Gwyneth Paltrow agreed to join the cast. This enabled Robert Jones to raise $3 million from Rysher Entertainment, a television company owned by Cox Communications that was looking to break into movies.

Once Jones got a look at Anderson’s 2 1/2 hour work print, he felt it was too long. Anderson was a rookie director without authority of final cut, but that didn’t stop him from refusing to change a frame. Jones fired Anderson and his editor and assembled a shorter version. Sydney was ultimately invited to the Cannes Film Festival for May 1996. Instead of the studio’s version, the festival accepted a director’s cut Anderson finished on the eve of Cannes. It received rave reviews.

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Anderson used money New Line had advanced him for Boogie Nights and donations from his cast to raise the $250,000 needed to finish the film. Rysher signed off on Anderson’s 101-minute director’s cut with one condition: they wanted the title changed to Hard Eight. In spite of the concession, the studio barely released it. Anderson and some of his fans still refer to his little seen debut film as Sydney.

Opinion
While Anderson’s ambitions as a filmmaker grew successively with Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love, Hard Eight remains the best writing of his career. Regarded as a “little film noir that could” upon its release, it’s obvious today that this is not a movie interested in crimes of passion, gangsters or dark secrets, even though the story features all three. It is as steadily written and beautifully cast as a great theater piece.

What’s novel about Hard Eight is that instead of trying to outgun Quentin Tarantino, Anderson lets his debut film simmer over conversation. It’s character and atmosphere – not plot pyrotechnics – that make the film work so well. The cast (joined by Philip Seymour Hoffman as “Young Craps Player”) do career finest work, especially Hall. Michael Penn & Jon Brion’s musical score, and Robert Elswit’s lighting give the film a wonderfully self-assured aesthetic that I loved. This is one of the finest films of the 1990s.

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Richard Propes at The Peaceful Critic writes, “Shot with a touch of film-noir and a mix of comedy, drama, action and suspense Hard Eight ultimately has it all. It is cool but not calm. It is stylish without being fashionable. It is, quite simply, a damn fine film. I strongly recommend it.”

“Anderson likes coincidences, so much that Magnolia is based on them. However, his penchant for them almost sinks this movie. The big secret is such a coincidence that it is unbelievable. It doesn’t ruin the great character development that leads up to it, but it left me with a bad taste in my mouth. It was just too contrived, even for the movies, and even for Paul Thomas Anderson,” writes Michael W. Phillips Jr. at goatdog’s movies. He gives it 3 goats out of 5.

Richard Jameson at Film Comment writes, “I’d like to call Hard Eight the most engrossing neo-noir since Pulp Fiction, but that would probably just buy trouble for it … Anderson’s film doesn’t aspire to the ecstatic riffs and grand-guignol black comedy of Tarantino’s, and its keynote action is drawing on a cigarette rather than drawing a gun. But Anderson shares the T man’s respect for conversation, and the conviction that the right actor making the right lines his own can be inexhaustibly thrilling.”

“You walk around like you’re Mr. Cool, Mr. Wisdom, but you’re not. You’re just some old hood.” View the fantastic 1997 theatrical trailer for Hard Eight.

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Gangsters and hoodlums · Master and pupil · Prostitute

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Chuck // Dec 3, 2007 at 1:19 pm

    Nice review Joe. My favorite Anderson film is still Boogie Nights at this point, but I think you may be right in claiming that Hard Eight has his best writing. Hard Eight seems more confident, not in camera tricks or acting, but in that it doesn’t seem as interested in being liked, in being seen as GREAT, as some of the other Anderson films. I haven’t seen the longer cut, but I’m almost willing to guess that the producers did Anderson a favor, as Boogie Nights and Magnolia are too long, going to great pains to underline points that were already made.

    Love that ending.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Dec 3, 2007 at 1:55 pm

    Chuck: I am unapologetic in my love for all four of Anderson’s films and can’t wait for There Will Be Blood. A lot of people have a problem with the running time of Boogie Nights and most especially, with Magnolia.

    I’d argue that both of those films – with their epic casts – warranted longer running times. A 2 1/2 hour version of Hard Eight would have been a bad idea and I agree with you that the studio did him a favor by suggesting it be shortened. The 101-minute version is Anderson’s cut of the film, not a studio hatchet job, and it’s a great film.

  • 3 Anura Liyanage // Jul 16, 2008 at 2:02 am

    Good movie
    I like Philip Baker Halls s acting very much.
    very natural and attractive actor

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