Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Before Paul Thomas Anderson dared to adapt Pynchon novels he made a lovely sparse seedy neo-noir movie called ‘Hard Eight’ in the mid nineties. The film has a stellar cast including Samuel L. Jackson before he became a parody of himself, Gwyneth Paltrow before Coldplay, John C. Reilly and a cameo from the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman. Such a cast is overshadowed by a perfect performance from Philip Baker Hall who plays wily fixer Sydney.
Sydney reminds me a lot of Harvey Keitel’s character from those Telly adverts, Winston something-or-other. He’s a problem solver, cool in the face of crisis. The film begins when Sydney comes across a beaten and bedraggled John (C. Reilly). John has lost money gambling. He was trying to win money to pay for his Mother’s funeral. Sydney buys John coffee, listens to his tale and then offers to teach him how to make some serious dollar.
Sydney takes John to Vegas and shows him how to hustle the casinos. The film then fast forwards to the next chapter. Two years later John is making good money. John and Sydney come across Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson) who runs security and Clementine, a wayward cocktail waitress slash prostitute (Paltrow). Like with John, Sydney tries to help out Clementine, at first she misinterprets his acts of kindness. Thinking, like most men that he wants her body.
That’s the set-up, the film ramps up the tension levels with blackmail, hostage situations and stand offs. Paul Thomas Anderson loads his films with talented charismatic actors, unusual off beat dialogue, and we know that this has become a mark of his work, but it’s fascinating to see how minimal the film is. Café-Casino-Motel Room. There’s no need to present the glitz and glamour of Vegas, this is the other reality, the lives in the shadows.
A word or two must go towards the Philip Seymour Hoffman scene, it’s brief, but brilliant, a hint of things to come. Hoffman is at his blustering obnoxious best. A gambler who goes up against Sydney. He taunts Sydney, calling him “old man” and tries to get under his skin. The scene is reminder to any actor who get gifted s a couple of minutes of screen time and a handful of lines early in their career. Give it everything, snatch the opportunity. It could launch a career. You could become an icon. Hoffman would go on to work with Paul Thomas Anderson, and it’s fair to say this scene probably convinced Anderson about what Hoffman was all about.