You know when you really love a director’s work and you’ve seen all their films but one and you kind of don’t want to watch it because then your journey will be over? Magnolia is one of my very favorite films, and over the years, I’ve watched all but one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s other movies and — with the notable exception of The Master — liked or loved them. Finally, however, it was time to watch Hard Eight, Anderson’s first feature, though not his first film. Anderson first gained attention with his 1993 short Cigarettes and Coffee, which he later expanded into Hard Eight. While it’s very different and clearly more of an inspiration for the film than something canonically associated with it, it’s not hard to see the seeds. Philip Baker Hall plays a character very similar to Hard Eight’s Sydney and has a conversation with a man similar to John C. Reilly’s character, John, in a Sparks diner. There’s a female character who could be transformed into Gwyneth Paltrow’s Clementine, and a hitman that could be turned into Samuel L. Jackson’s Jimmy. The people in this diner are talking about gambling and casinos, and although they don’t know it, a world of violence is quietly waiting outside. I only watched this short film after the movie, though, and I was fascinated by how Anderson repurposed the driving force — Philip Baker Hall attempts to help a friend with his problem — for the opening scene of the film, which immediately compelled and gripped me to the point where before it was even over, I had decided that my article would be about breaking those seven minutes down, so here we are.
An ominous, somber score plays over the opening credits, and the sound of a semi infiltrates the “Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson” card. Cut to a wide shot of Jack’s Coffee Shop, and we see the truck pass in front, and just as it’s leaving the frame, Sydney steps in from the right, but all we see is his coat. Our eyes are instead drawn to John sitting in front of the diner right in the center of the frame, and as the camera follows Sydney walking toward the diner, it eventually pushes in on John, splitting the frame almost evenly between John’s seated body and the bottom half of Sydney’s coat. We see John’s face first, and yet there’s so much power in the unseen — and in Sydney’s voice — that we’re paradoxically more interested in the person who’s not onscreen. After a quick “Hey”/“What” exchange, Sydney kicks the movie into a gear with a firm “You want a cup of coffee? You want a cigarette?” He responds to John’s bemused “What?” by repeating, “I’m a guy that’s offering to give you a cigarette. And buy you a cup of coffee.” It’s almost Sorkinesque in its repetition, but not at all delivered the same way, and the mannered dialogue recalls Hall’s similar repetition of the ritual of waiting until “the coffee is poured and the cigarettes are lit” in Cigarettes and Coffee.
We don’t even need to hear the answer because, well, if he refuses, there’s no movie, so boom, cut to Sydney with a cigarette. For the next two-and-a-half minutes, Anderson alternates between eye-level, head-on close-ups of the two men (a much more striking choice than in Cigarettes and Coffee, where he shoots them from an angle or the side). We do not see the waitress or any other customers; only these two people matter in the whole world. Sydney casually questions John about his situation, and John’s so downbeat it’s almost depressing. But at one point he gains some of the confidence Sydney has displayed from the start and gets snippy! Sydney reminds him, “I bought you a cup of coffee, I’ve given you a cigarette,” because Anderson really wants you to know that this film is expanded from a short film called Cigarettes and Coffee. The repetitive nature of Sydney’s dialogue should be so irritating, but instead it only makes him all the more compelling because his very deliberate way of speaking positions him as a knowledgeable mentor figure — in the original short, Kirk Baltz comes to him for help, rather than being offered it — and makes us want to know more about him. And, more importantly, why he’s doing this. “You look like a man who could use a friend,” he says. But is that all there is? Oh, we’ll find out eventually that this is no chance encounter, but in this opening scene, we can imagine a myriad of ulterior motives. He needs an in, though, and finally John gives it to him when he admits he needs six thousand dollars to pay for his mother’s funeral.
When Sydney asks if anyone can help him, we finally switch to a two-shot, signaling that a connection has been made between the two characters. John laments, “There’s no one else, it’s me, I’m alone, that’s it,” but for the first time, we can see that he is not, as this is the first time in the entire movie we can see both John’s face and Sydney’s face. He looked like a man who could use a friend, and now he has one.
Back to the same framing and angle as before, alternating between the two of them, the conversation continues, but now Sydney, who does not have six thousand dollars, offers John fifty dollars. If John had fifty dollars, he would use it to eat, but how long can you live on fifty dollars? Sydney would bet not very long. John takes that in and retorts, “You would bet?”
And that, my friends, is the magic fucking word in a movie that will take us into the world of gambling because suddenly the mundane diner music we’ve been hearing throughout the scene gives way to a glorious tapping piano and the camera is suddenly close-up on the side of Sydney’s face like it’s never been, and it swings back to his shoulder as he takes one final drag of his cigarette, and it’s so fucking thrilling because the camera has not moved at all since that opening shot, relying solely on the dialogue and performances to hold our attention, but now it’s on, motherfuckers, it’s on. There’s a quick cut to Sydney picking up his cigarettes and the check before we return to the two-shot from before, but now Sydney is standing so that we only see his bottom half, a mirror of their original meeting. As Sydney offers to loan John fifty dollars and to show him the gambling ropes, the score is rising and hopeful, but John is still so confused. Is Sydney Saint Francis?
No, he is not Saint Francis —by the way, you should watch Saint Frances — but this new frame that aligns him next to three lamps going back into infinity certainly makes him seem like he’s got the light of divinity. We return to the same editing rhythm as before, alternating between the two characters, but with different angles to emphasize that John is sitting and Sydney is standing. The camera, previously static, continues to push in on each character as he speaks, and as John remains hesitant to accept the help of a stranger, a lower-pitched piano melody joins the main melody, with a woodwind coming in as John looks out the window, trying to decide, and it’s such a lovely tune that evokes the burgeoning friendship we’re witnessing. Jon Brion and Michael Penn’s score does so much heavy lifting in these crucial moments. We’re close on John now, closer than we’ve ever been, and he finally agrees. With some caveats. And a reminder that if Sydney pulls anything, John will fuck him up. Sydney solemnly declares that he believes him and walks away.
Back to the two-shot of the booth with only John, and now the strings soar and a horn croons to commemorate that the agreement has been made. John sips his coffee and leaves, leaving an empty table with just two empty cups, and the camera pushes in on those two coffee cups with an ashtray between them. This scene sprung out of Cigarettes and Coffee, and so it ends with a cup for each man and then the ashtray that they shared, a symbol of their connection. A connection made over cigarettes and coffee. Cut to black. Title card. And we’re off.