Sitting down to write this post I wanted avoid writing a post that simply draws basic comparisons between Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight (1997) and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob Le Flambeur (1956). It is clear to anyone who has seen Anderson’s first feature film that it was heavily inspired off the work of Melville. In fact on the DVD commentary, P. T. Anderson fully admits that he, “probably owes Melville a lot of money for ripping him off”. But I think that the inspiration for Hard Eight is more than just lifting characters out of Melville’s film set in a sleazy district of Paris and moving them into the modern American setting of sleazy Reno Nevada. What really comes across with both Anderson and Melville’s films is a love for cinema, a love for what a camera can allow a director to do with a space, or to create an aesthetically pleasing shot not just with a static composition, but movement as well. But before that, I think it is important to touch on some of those basic similarities I spoke about avoiding.
P.T. Anderson’s film is the story of an ageing gambler, Sydney (Philip Baker Hall), who seems to accidently cross paths with a young down and out man named John (John C. Reilly). After their first encounter at a coffee shop, the movie is focused on the somewhat strange father son relationship that builds between Sydney and John, a relationship that becomes more clear as the movie progresses. Sydney is older and wiser than John, and despite being sceptical about Sydney’s seemingly random act of generosity John takes Sydney’s offer to be taught how to make a living off gambling to hopefully turn his life around. That very brief summary of the film already shares some basically similarities with Melville’s film, but what Anderson does is explain to us how the ageing gambler, or perhaps more appropriately the ageing “hood” and the young protégé met.
In Melville’s film, the ageing gambler Bob (Roger Duchesne) and his young protégé Paolo (Daniel Cauchy) have already come to know each other before we are introduced to either. Instead, Bob comes across a young and slightly promiscuous Anne (Isabelle Corey) and feels compelled to take her in from the seedy streets of a Parisian setting, something that is similarly developed in Anderson’s film between Sydney and Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow).
I think a more central theme to both these films is gambling, and I don’t just mean the fact that both these films are set primarily either in a Reno casino or a shady gambling den in Paris, but more what gambling means to the main characters of Bob and Sydney. Both men are willing to risk all they have for a bigger payout. To both gambling isn’t just a social gathering to pass the time or a crippling addiction that ruins lives, though I would say both have an addiction to gambling. Instead gambling becomes a metaphor for their lives, it’s a game of chance and you have to be willing to take a chance in order to make a profit. Yes both men maybe haven’t won a whole lot of money, yes both men have also lost a whole lot of money, but they both know what one needs to do in order to earn a living gambling.
Narrative themes aside, the homage in Anderson’s film goes beyond these similarities of characters. Both Melville and Anderson know that the camera isn’t just a tool for recording characters delivering dialogue, but instead that the camera is a tool that can and wants to be moved. It is a tool that not only shows us the characters but also more importantly shows us the physical space that is as crucial to these characters as their gambling habit. Take for example an early scene in Bob Le Flambeur when Bob is exiting the back of a bar/casino, here a slow tracking shot follows Bob as he walks out the empty bar with the band in the background playing a xylophone mix of Bob’s theme. The tracking shot with Bob serves to show us Bob in his natural space, an environment he enjoys and thrives in though not always to his benefit.
Paul Thomas Anderson, a filmmaker who no doubt has a strong love for a good long take such as the establishing long take of Boogie Nights (1997), allows us to follow Sydney in two distinct SteadiCam shots that almost have a dream like floating quality to them as they glide behind Sydney through the Casino floor. Both Melville and Anderson are not too intrusive with the camera in these shots, but instead keep at a distance to allow us to observe both Bob and Sydney and their respected habitats. Similar shot compositions can also been noticed in how both directors show us the outcome of a dice roll that both Bob and Sydney have a lot riding on.
Both Bob and Sydney are characters who don’t lose, yet really don’t win either. Instead, they just both seem to know enough to live a comfortable lifestyle. They are both old, wise, calm, and collected. Hoods from a past that have a unique style that if nothing else just looks so cool on the screen. Like the protagonists of each film, Hard Eight and Bob Le Flambeur are great examples of films by directors who know how to make a movie that is as stylish and cool and the protagonists themselves.
By Andrew Watts