we're back. ready for Round 2.
During the 90's, the independent cinema saw its burgeoning talents create debut films on small budgets. Clerks & Reservoir Dogs gained cult followings amongst fervent film fans. Hard Eight was a film that had flew below the 'cult radar'. Anderson doesn't start off his film with people talking about Like A Virgin. Nor does it start off with a 15 minute opening without dialogue....or a long tracking shot into a club...or an anthology of short stories. No. PT kicks his first film off with John C. Reilly sitting with his back against a restaurant exterior and Philip Baker Hall offering him cigarettes and coffee.
The script for Hard Eight was originally titled Sydney and was written within the span of 2 weeks. The whole notion behind the idea of Sydney was "What if James Cagney hadn't died in White Heat? What if he had something to pay for down the line?" This theme of redemption will come into play several more times in Paul's work but Hard Eight acts as a blueprint for it. The notion of family and the need for belonging is also prevalent in Hard Eight and would be fully fleshed out in the multi storied Boogie Nights.
The inspiration for the film stems from Jean Pierre Melville's sublime noir Bob La Flambeur. Like Melville's film, it is key that we know who these people are in this seedy underbelly of Reno, Nevada. But what's more, how are we going to create the look of Reno. Cinematographer Robert Elswit plays a key role in PTA's films. The gambling casinos in Hard Eight have more in common with what you would expect in Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas than Ocean's Eleven. Now putting faces to the inhabitants of this seedy underworld...that's the tricky part. Tasked with that, it's important to find the right actors who are willing to play out these roles.
Anderson uncovered a lost treasure in Philip Baker Hall's acting. Hall is best known for his role in Robert Altman's one man (!) show Secret Honor as Richard Nixon, a role he had played in the theater several times. Hall has stated that when working with Paul the work is done for you. This allows the actor to bring their A game to the set. Anderson first met Hall at the age of 16. He got a job on a PBS movie about an English professor who was accused of racism. Hall would later land a role in the short Cigarettes and Coffee and get a lead role in Hard Eight.
Another actor in the director's stable is John C. Reilly who makes his first major role in this film. Gwyneth Paltrow plays cocktail waitress Clementine and Sam Jackson playing Jimmy rounds out the cast. His character of Jimmy provides a backbone to the the character arc of Philip Baker Hall and allows for the slowly brewing pot of suspense to simmer. Jackson, being the only bankable actor in terms of marketing, helped obtain the film's financing. PT would go onto state that he had a horrendous time financing the film being that the financier's roots were in television.
The interplay between John C. Reilly and Philip Baker Hall comes off natural and never forced. Even the role of Clementine played by Paltrow called for the actress to shed her habits and inhabit the part. One actor who makes a brief but memorable cameo is Philip Seymour Hoffman. Having caught the director's eye with his role in Scent of A Woman, Hoffman brought a considerable amount of improv to his role. It's a trademark PT character that's in the background of his films, like Henry Gibson's Thurston Howell in Magnolia. The scene is pivotal because it is the first time we see a crack in Sydney's armor. It's when the movie starts becoming a real movie.
From there, the film takes us to a hotel room scene between the three actors Hall, Reilly and Paltrow. This is another key scene of the movie. It's the game changing scene in a sense that each character is allowed for an emotional outburst. PTA wisely holds off on showing what went down in the hotel just long enough. He stated on the DVD commentary that it's fun to watch an audience member go "Show me! Show me!". It's the rules of suspense and in the hands of another director, this whole scene would have flown apart at the seams.
The original cut of the film came in at 2 1/2 hours. One of the scenes that didn't make the cut was the 'Clementine turd story'. From the interviews I have read, PT said that the footage got lost. At a brisk 101 minutes, I'm glad it got the trimming. Pacing wise, the scenes play out in a mostly ecomonical and unsentimental fashion. Where some scenes could be trimmed because of their length, others, I felt had an appropriate beat to them. In particular the exchange of dialogue between John & Sydney in the car. Jon Brion, another frequent collaborator, scored his first composing gig on the film. Parts of his score for this film would turn up in Boogie Nights.
Hard Eight is a film intent on focusing on interactions between characters, the sudden gestures and the mishaps. Anderson is not so much interested in the crimes taking place but in how the people interact with each other. There's the unease of tension in the scene between Sam Jackson and Philip Baker Hall in the car. Or even focusing on people handing each other money. His knack for capturing people's interesting behavior is on full display here. Of course, we'll see Anderson go "balls in" with an ensemble narrative in his next film, but you can already see the building blocks in place. The script is smart. The acting is great. Robert Elswit's cinematography certainly helps craft a particular vibe, and Jon Brion's score helps cement it. His debut feature shows he has a patience with how things play out naturally. It's the most subtle of his works and as a result, leads to it being the one that is overlooked. In a filmography filled with grand character moments and sweeping narratives, Hard Eight is the calm before the storm.
I'm wondering, what was the first PTA film you saw? What struck you the most about his style? And finally, what are YOUR impressions of Hard Eight?