The prolific character Philip Baker Hall plays the lead role of Sydney an older man who seemingly takes a random man in front of a cafe and proceeds to offer to show him how to be a successful gambler. Philip Baker Hall is reliable in any role that he is given no matter how small they may be. He also though is quite capable as a lead, as he proved his one-man show style portrayal of Nixon in Secret Honor. This time he once again gets a chance to lead a film, although this time its not a solo venture. Philip Baker Hall has such a unique screen presence and in turn he makes Sydney a fascinating character from the moment he asks John if he would like a cup of coffee and a cigarette. Sydney sudden and rather extreme charity to this man seems a bit extreme to say the least Hall does a particularly great job of making you feel comfortable with Sydney despite his straightforward manner. The straightforward attitude that Hall portrays is not exactly how you may expect though.
Hall plays the part with such a delicate complexity and it is fascinating to watch him play the part in a somewhat atypical fashion, yet actually completely naturalistic. Hall disarms you with this sense of warmth that he brings to the part. It's such an unusual charm that Hall infuses to the part. It never is overwhelming but makes Hall manages to use it so calmly to make Sydney so likable, and a completely magnetic character. What Hall does exceptionally well though is that he does not let the warmth define the character or even be an obvious factor. It's something you can feel, but Hall never just simply states with his performance. Hall very nicely leaves a question mark behind the man while he is encouraging John, you can't quite tell what he is up to at this point in the film. Hall allows you to think that perhaps Sydney is just helping John because he is a nice guy or it could be more. Hall never gives you too much or too little leaving Sydney such an interesting enigma of a man.
Hall is great at monologue an exposition, after all he did carry Secret Honor which was just one very long monologue, and ability with it comes into play while he tells John the ropes about how to successfully play the house and win. Hall whole delivery is pitch perfect as it shows this knowledge as almost innate in Sydney as he has obviously spent a considerable time in this sort of life, knowing exactly what to expect. Sydney is in fact kind of a good version of George C. Scott's Burt in The Hustler. Both are well dressed men who take another man under their wing with some manipulation involved, except Sydney seems to be doing for the good of John as a person. The idea of such a man seems almost impossible to believe but Hall makes you believe it as there is such an honesty in Sydney's sage like attitude. Hall brings even more than perhaps what was written though as he does always suggest that there is even more to this relationship, and not what is eventually revealed by the plot of the film.
There is something else that Hall seems to suggest in his performance and what that is, is an underlying sadness about Sydney. He's not weeping or even openly depressed or anything but Hall suggests quite carefully that Sydney is deep down a lonely man who believes by helping others they might treat him with a kindness, which is merely being his friend. Although a later revelation indicates that his decision to help John was not as random as it initially appears, his attempt to alleviate loneliness still seems to be a strong part of it, evidenced by the way he treats a waitress in a casino Clementine (Gweneth Paltrow). Hall again brings this constant sort of empathy that is always felt around Sydney as he treats everyone, who deserves it, with respect. Hall exudes this in a fascinating way because you never see any desperation on Sydney's sleeve, yet nevertheless in his own particularly subtle way Hall still allows you to see that Sydney is reaching out in his own way for some sort of happiness through helping others.
Sydney relationship with John is soon proven to be far from perfect though when he is called in by John to help deal with a blackmail situation that Clementine has come up with while John has chosen to go along with it. Hall is terrific in this scene because he plays it just so realistically. Although Sydney obviously has been a great guy to John up to this point he obviously will not allow himself go to jail by getting involved with a truly harebrained scheme that could only possibly end badly. Hall's great because he just very bluntly shows Sydney ever so slightly loses his cool, and just his survival instincts come into play. Hall knows exactly how to play the scene though because he never loses our empathy in fact he is by far still the most easy to sympathize character in the scene. Hall just wonderfully does not beat around the bush and it's so great to see him so honestly play the scene as he plays Sydney's reaction to be what many people's reaction would be when thrown into such a ludicrous position.
Due to the fact that he is given a minute to think, and that the two manage to plead with him properly Sydney ends up helping them by simply getting them out of the room and on their way. Sydney still has to deal with one more obstacle though and that is a crude friend of John's Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson) who intends to extort Sydney due to Jimmy knowing about Sydney's past. It turns out that Sydney was once a mobster related with plenty of criminal activities including murder. When this revelation is revealed all I thought was yes that makes since. Hall properly left it open to Sydney's true "identity" so to speak, but when the revelation is made you can see that Hall completely makes it understandable. Sydney is in fact a mobster who is trying to make amends of a sort, and try to have a good life despite obviously living a bad one. The history of the man can be seen in the style in which Hall approaches the part, and even in that certain distance he has within his warmth, like it is the leftover coldness needed for a mobster capable of killing.
Jimmy's blackmail basically forces Sydney's hand and Hall brings both the new and old Sydney together in a brilliant set of scenes for him. The first being the old Sydney as he goes about confronting Jimmy. Hall is effectively jarring in this scene as he brings out the killer in Sydney without his cold method in handling Jimmy. Hall in this scene shows both Sydney as he treats a man he has no respect for as well as probably the way Sydney once operated back in the old days. Before this though we get the new Sydney in his attempt at reforming himself as he calls John, who's gone on the a run of sorts with Clementine, and simply tells John that he loves him like a son. This whole scene could have not worked at all in that it could have seemed silly or too cheesy for the rest of the film. It's an incredibly poignant scene because of Hall's performance in the scene. He does not gush or break down in anyway, that would be all wrong for Sydney, yet he still reveals these strong emotions in Sydney probably through the character's very personal manner toward life.
This is a great performance by Philip Baker Hall which kinda makes the film. Paul Thomas Anderson's direction is already very assured, even though its his first film, but the script for the film actually is far from perfection. It's attempts to make it have film noir plot of sorts are not exactly extraordinary, and easily could have sunk the film. The minor twists and turns are not exactly amazing but they all work because of Philip Baker Hall. A lesser actor very well may have left too much on the surface with Sydney, as not a whole lot is said, leaving the character a little hollow, but that is never the case with Philip Baker Hall's portrayal. He realizes the character so truthfully that you always believe in Sydney as a person allowing the film to be such a fascinating character study while with less assured hands it could have just been a second rate thriller. I would not have minded if the film had continued, and we simply followed Sydney some more because Hall's gives such a vivid portrait of this one of a kind character.