Take a trip back to a time when cars had cigarette lighters, people used pay phones to get in touch over distance, and a rate card in a casino seemed an exclusive perk to the biggest of gamblers.
This is the world of P.T. Anderson’s “Hard Eight” (1996) and it seems to be so long ago, but its Reno, Nevada setting belies the idea that Las Vegas was still that way at the time. Because at that point the Mirage had been opened for 7 years, and fake pirates, wizards, and pyramids were already characterizing the Strip at Treasure Island, Excalibur, and Luxor. The Fremont Street experience covered downtown’s main drag with a canopy of light and sound. The classic casino setting that characterizes Anderson’s movie was more readily found in the northern part of the state.
As that corporate makeover transformed Las Vegas there was a nostalgic notion, which still lingers today, that things were better when the mob ran the town. That a personal relationship and a floor manager’s intuition meant better things for guests than professional management and closely tracked play.
In “Hard Eight”, that nostalgic notion is personified by Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) who wears a suit to the casino, speaks softly but tips well, knows casino floor staff by name, and makes four figure bets at the craps table with an alluring mix of confidence in the wager and indifference to the result.
Sydney helps a gambler down on his luck (John, played by John C. Reilly) and shows concern and respect for a cocktail waitress (Clementine, Gwyneth Paltrow) playing a part in an exploitative system. Moreover, Sydney is explicitly intolerant of the brash and crude behavior of Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson) as part of that exploitation.
All of this is the kind of cool and classy manner we associate with old school Vegas. This is what people claim to miss.
But so easy to forget is that beneath that veneer was a more base, primal nature, territorial and savage. There was a reason Nevada in this period earned the name “green felt jungle”, and predators roamed that jungle.
We sense that Jimmy has some of that nature. He is introduced to Sydney as a friend of John, and one that recognizes him with an anecdote about those cool big bets at the tables. Anderson makes it clear there is something more sinister about the meeting than simple recounting of a chance encounter. We get that sense of menace just from the sound of Jimmy’s leather jackets moving in tight spaces.
We also suspect that Sydney has something of that nature in him. He makes vague references to friends that can help John with his money problems. And Jimmy seems know something about Sydney besides how the man likes to play craps.
So when the story pivots from one of redemption for these characters into one of criminal conspiracy, we are not surprised that Jimmy is involved. Or that Sydney ‘s coolness extends beyond knowing his way around a casino floor. What we perhaps do not anticipate is that the simple gambler and tip-hustling cocktail waitress can also show a strong survival instinct that stretches boundaries.
In the end, though, this is Sydney’s story. And even more so, a fable of old Vegas. P.T. Anderson does not let either of them write their own history cleanly.