Earlier this week, Philip Baker Hall passed away at the age of 90. For the most part, he remained a character actor only appearing in a few scenes or supporting roles in bigger movies such as The Rock, Ghostbusters II and the Kiss of Death remake in 1995. He hardly ever appeared in a leading role, even after his critically acclaimed role as Richard M. Nixon in Secret Honor, released in 1984.
Fortunately, Paul Thomas Anderson saw that movie and became an admirer of Hall’s work. He cast him in a short movie, Cigarettes & Coffee in 1993. (This is not to be confused with Coffee and Cigarettes made by Jim Jarmusch in 2003.) The short movie became a sensation that producer Robert Jones approached Anderson to expand it into a feature movie.
The plot revolves around an aging gambler, Sydney Brown (Hall) who approaches a down-on-his-luck young man, John Finnegan (John C. Reilly), he spots outside a coffee shop diner outside Reno, Nev. He offers John a cup of coffee and a cigarette. The two men talk with John at first not wanting to say much, but Sydney gets it out that John had gone to Las Vegas in hopes of winning $6,000 at blackjack. But John has no money and no way of burying his mother.
Sydney offers to drive John back to Las Vegas and gives him $50. Initially, John thinks Sydney is propositioning him for sex but Sydney assures him it’s not that. Along the way they talk getting to know each other. At a casino, Sydney gives John $150 actually and shows him how to use a rate card and keep cashing his dollar coins in for a $100 bill at one cashier and then keep cashing that for dollar coins and getting his rate card updated by another cashier.
Sydney tells John to only bet up to $20 at the slot machines in full view of the floor manager who he acquired the rate card after giving him some sob story about being a bad gambler. Reilly’s delivery is perfect as well as how he portrays John as a gullible but loveable guy. Eventually, this ruse of making it look like he’s winning more gets John a comped hotel room and enough money to pay back $150 and have some extra. In one scene, John hits a $200 jackpot and his reaction is great. In the end, Sydney says he knows some people who can help John bury his mother properly.
Two years later, Sydney and John are back in Reno where Sydney spends his days gambling and his nights sitting in the keno bars. John admires Sydney but unfortunately, has started to associate with an unsavory character, Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson). Sydney doesn’t like Jimmy and Jimmy doesn’t like Sydney. You can get that from the first scene there together. We later find out, Jimmy knows something about Sydney that explains why he’s been so nice and helpful to John over the years.
At the same time, Sydney wants to help out a young cocktail waitress, Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow) who also makes extra money on the side as a prostitute. This creates a problem later that I won’t reveal. John likes Clementine and Sydney can sense that and tries to play matchmaker. But this turns out differently than he intended. In the end, he has to help them out.
The way Anderson directs this issue many other directors would’ve resorted to a lot of yelling and profanity. But you can tell Sydney is a person who may never have been in this particular situation, he is able to keep his cool because this isn’t the first time he’s had to act quickly. It’s not that he’s not worried. He just knows time is a factor.
In the end, Sydney must help John and Clementine and smooth things over with Jimmy. And judging what we find out about Sydney’s past, this is an act of atonement. And Hall’s performance throughout the movie is that of a man whose had many years on him. Hall isn’t trying to act like a younger man. He was in his mid-60s making this movie and he looks it as he has permanent bags under his eyes and wrinkles that he’s earned with many tough times.
Still, there’s a sense that Sydney is an older man in a world that is changing too quick. During what seems like an obligatory scene, a young craps player (Philip Seymour Hoffman in an early role) plays a hotshot who is quick to criticize Sydney, who always wears suits and ties while others dress more flashy. He’s an old-timer gambler in a world that is changing. This is one of Hall’s best performance. And even though Anderson cast him in other movies, he never was as good as he is here.
As for the rest of the cast, they are perfect. As I said, Reilly comes off well in a role he’s typically playing. He’s not the sharpest tool in the shed, but he’s the one who will always be the most reliable. And Paltrow plays Clementine as a perfect match for John. She’s not to bright at most things and you’re glad she’s got a fatherly figure like Sydney looking over her. And Jackson is Jackson as always when it comes to playing bad guys. You know better than to cross him and if you do, you better be quick to strike him down.
Hard Eight, like a lot of independent movies in the 1990s, didn’t get a lot of press and attention. Most of this was due to Jones trying to recut and re-edit it as well as the movie becoming tangled in distribution issues. It was shown at the Sundance Film Festival in 1996 and at Cannes later that year, but didn’t get a proper release until late February 1997 and grossed around $222,500.
If you’re a fan of Anderson and/or the cast, you should check it out. It’s a nice debut for Anderson as a filmmaker and Hall really hits the jackpot with this role.
What do you think? Please comment.