Hard Eight (1996) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

Hard-Eight-posterPaul Thomas Anderson is writer and director with a very distinctive world-view and a well-established preoccupation with exploring the power of the parent-child dynamic in all its forms. Although he first came to prominence with his epic take on the 1970s porn industry, Boogie Nights, I believe he has yet to improve on his debut movie, which was filmed as ‘Sydney’ but released, very much against his wishes, as Hard Eight, a tale of love, murder and gambling in Reno.

The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his fab Sweet Freedom blog.

Sydney: Never ignore a man’s courtesy.

Not a filmmaker usually associated with the crime and mystery genre, Anderson’s most recent film, Inherent Vice, took a sideways looks at the private eye genre as re-imagined by Thomas Pynchon. His debut is seemingly a much more conventional genre piece, a tale of gangsters, molls, gamblers and hustlers with a violent climax. But the film is really a chamber piece for four voices, led by a magisterial performance from Philip Baker Hall as Sydney, a veteran gambler with hidden depths (and secrets). John C Reilly plays John Finnegan, a naive drifter who has loser written all over him until he meets Sydney, the two becoming unlikely friends (their opening scene together outside and then inside a cafe is very Tarantino-like perhaps self-consciously an actor’s showcase but in its profane, and here largely unquotable, way, very funny, sad and tremendously well done).

Sydney: You know the first thing they should’ve taught you at hooker school? You get the money up front!

The film sees Sydney help the lonely lad who can’t even pay for his mother’s funeral by teaching him how to win playing slots in a casino and also teaches him when to quit. But he can only help him so far seemingly as he starts getting into very serious trouble when he meets Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), a cocktail waitress who is quite sweet really, but not very successful, even when moonlighting as a prostitute. But she falls for Reilly and gets him into lots of serious trouble. They are the main characters of the first half of the film, with the plot only really kicking in when John’s sleazy friend, Jimmy, played by Samuel L Jackson, enters the scene. A crude small-town ‘security consultant’ he brings potential death and destruction to them all – not least because he knows a very dark secret from Sydney’s past. Philip Seymour Hoffman also has a great little cameo as a gambler at the tables, but Anderson wrote the film with Hall in mind and the actor is utterly compelling throughout as the tough but loving old-timer. When we learn that he is divorced and has an estranged son and daughter who are roughly John and Clementine’s ages, we realise just how much baggage he carries with him and why he wants to help them so much.  I think this is a great little movie – spare, raw, surprising, and very well controlled – a neo-noir that probably could have been made by no other filmmaker. Check it out, you won’t be sorry.

DVD Availability: Released quite a few years ago in a special edition DVD, it offers a decent anamorphic transfer (as well as a pan and scan version on the flip side) with two audio commentaries, one featuring Anderson and Hall and the other again with Anderson and other participants. There are also extended segments from a workshop version of three scenes stages in detail at Sundance before the film was made, with Courtney B. Vance in the role eventually played by Samuel L. Jackson and Moira Kelly in the one played by Paltrow.

Hard Eight (1996)
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Producer: Mark Johnson
Screenplay: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cinematography: Robert Elswit
Art Direction: Nancy Deren
Music: Jon Brion
Cast: Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robert Ridgely

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in Film Noir, Las Vegas, Reno, Tuesday's Overlooked Film and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

40 Responses to Hard Eight (1996) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

  1. This one sounds like one of those terrific atmospheric films, Sergio. And it’s interesting that he did such a fine job with his debut film. Lots of times, as you well know. you don’t see the best until someone hits her or his stride.

  2. tracybham says:

    We watched this movie a few years after it came out and still have a copy, I think. Now we will finally have to watch it again. I did like it a lot, although I remember little about what actually happened, just remember the characters.

  3. Colin says:

    Never seen this, it completely passed me by for some reason. It does sound like a neat movie with a good cast though – one to check out, I think.

  4. Mike says:

    Very persuasive write-up Sergio, I’ll need to check it out. I’ve seen a fair few PTAs over the years – admit that I didn’t quite get the critical bushings for THERE WILL BE BLOOD, really enjoyed BOOGIE NIGHTS and MAGNOLIA, watched PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE for the first time very recently and wasn’t totally sold. I mean technically it was all there – glorious cinematography, beautifully edited, colour scheme becoming softer as the main character’s fortunes improved, etc – yet I found it difficult to get all its subtle subtexts and I’m still not won over by Adam Sandler.

    • Thanks Mike. Actually, I saw LOVE in New York (one and onyl time I have visited) when it came out, weirdly in the same week as RED DRAGON, which also co-starred Emily Watson and Phlip Seymour Hoffman, and neither film convinced me.

      • Mike says:

        I’ve seen RED DRAGON once and it’s gathered dust ever since – all felt a bit unnecessary as though it was made for the sake of shamelessly extending a profitable franchise. Besides isn’t this the one that effectively remakes the classic MANHUNTER, and it isn’t a patch on it? Sorry to have dragged you off-topic…

        • I live to go off topic mate 🙂 I actually think MANHUNTER is overrated (but then I am not a huge fan of Michael Mann) – RED DRAGON is a more faithful adaptation of the novel though William Peterson is a much better choice for Will Graham. Have you been watching the HANNIBAL TV show? It should;t work, but it does and is amazing.

          • Mike says:

            Just the first episode, which was good enough for me to carry on watching it but for some reason I never have. One to put right at some stage. I quite like Mann’s films, live the style of them, at least until MIAMI VICE at any rate…

          • The MIAMI VICE movie was just unbelievably bad!

  5. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have seen the film, but I was disappointed.Though the acting is very good, I found the plot weak and the story vague. For example what was the reason for Sydney’s past crime and why did he feel guilty about it ? I thought that all these would come out but that was not to be. Instead we have a tame ending. While Jimmy is not a good man, I did not feel any sympathy for the other 3 characters also who seem to be without morality or redeeming qualities. For example , when an unconscious man is coming around, hitting him on the head again to make him unconscious is a brutal thing to do.

    • Thanks Santosh – well, I agree that Clem and John are presented almost ridiculously childish characters, but what I liked was the creation of the ersatz family unit (which is what usually happens in an Anderson movie). I quite liked the vagueness of Sydney’s past though it was enough to make the point that none of what happened at the beginning was by chance.

  6. I’m a fan of some of Anderson’s work – Magnolia particularly, best moments of Tom Cruise and Julianne Moore (‘calling me lady – shame on you!’), but didn’t come across him till Boogie Nights, so missed out on this one. Sounds worth seeking out….

    • This one deserves to be better know Moira – I saw MAGNOLIA at the pictures and found it a bit too bombastic for my liking, for all its fine qualities (I prefer SHORT CUTS, which it was clearly modelled on).

  7. Patti Abbott says:

    This is one of those films that seem to come out of nowhere and are such a delight. Great start to finish.

  8. le0pard13 says:

    Wonderful crime film with some splendid character development. Not to be missed. Fine look at it, Sergio.

  9. Thanks for the review, Sergio. You have pulled another one out of the hat. I’m not familiar with the filmmaker or his work but I can see he has been prolific. I will check it out, both for the storyline and the cast.

  10. vinnieh says:

    I really love the sound of this movie.

  11. vinnieh says:

    I love discovering hidden gems.

  12. Todd Mason says:

    One I’ve meant to see over the years, but haven’t gotten around to. There are so many things I haven’t gotten around to.

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