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The Harder They Come
Director: Perry Henzell
Screenplay: Perry Henzell & Trevor D. Rhone
Stars: Jimmy Cliff (Ivan Martin), Janet Barkley (Elsa), Carl Bradshaw (Jose), Ras Daniel Hartman (Pedro), Basil Keane (Preacher), Bobby Charlton (Hilton), Winston Stona (Detective Ray Jones), Lucia White (Mother)
MPAA Rating:R
Year of Release: 1973
Country: Jamaica
The Harder They Come Poster

Before Perry Henzell's The Harder They Come was released in 1973, Jamaica had never seen itself on screen. Having earned independence from England a scant 10 years earlier, the small island nation in the West Indies was just beginning to form its own unique identity, and The Harder They Come helped solidify it in both the minds of Jamaicans and in the eyes of the rest of the world.

The film, written by Henzell and Jamaican playwright Trevor D. Rhone (who wrote and directed a spin-off film, Smile Orange, in 1976), tells the story of Ivan Martin (reggae singer Jimmy Cliff), a rural Jamaican who comes to Kingston hoping to make it as a singer. He finds that breaking into the music business is next to impossible, and finding general work is no easier. Early scenes show him being turned away from a construction site because he has no skills to offer, and at one point he begs a women to let him wash her car or tend her garden.

Finally finding work with a repressive preacher (Basil Keane), Ivan's life starts to turn up as he falls in love with the preacher's adopted daughter (Janet Barkley) and manages to get a song recorded. Unfortunately, he finds that the Kingston recording industry is dominated by one man, Mr. Hilton (Bobby Charlton), who controls both the production and distribution. Thus, when Ivan balks at being paid only $20 for his song and tries to distribute it himself, he finds that no one will play it out of fear of getting on the wrong side of Hilton.

Eventually, Ivan accepts the $20, but his single goes nowhere because Hilton refuses to promote it. Life begins to turn downward again, as Ivan is eventually pressed into a life of crime running ganja and dealing with crooked police officers. Things come to a head when he is involved in the killing of several cops and becomes a hunted outlaw. Ironically, this propels him into the stardom he has always dreamed of because Hilton exploits his notoriety by finally promoting his long-forgotten single in the frame of its being sung by a wanted killer.

Thus, The Harder They Come deals explicitly with themes of corruption on several levels and how crime and violence are often romanticized. Henzell makes this especially evident in Ivan's final confrontation with the police, which is intercut with earlier scenes of an excited movie audience cheering on the violence of a spaghetti western, thus reinforcing Ivan's notion of himself as mediated through imported popular culture.

In some ways, The Harder They Come is very much like the American gangster films of 1930s like The Public Enemy (1930) and their equation of poverty and social barriers to individuals being forced into a life of crime. In fact, when Ivan enters into the role of the criminal, he relishes the identity, even taking pictures of himself posing in a six-gun Western stance with a pistol in each hand.

The film is a hard-hitting social drama with revolutionary political overtones, but it is immensely enjoyable and, at times, light-hearted. Although it is the only film Perry Henzell ever directed, he displays an impressive command of the camera, successful moving among various genres and tones despite the obviously limited budget and lack of technical polish. At one moment, the film is witty and humorous, the next it is strikingly violent. Yet, the pieces all come together in a strong fabric that is held together by Jimmy Cliff's strong central performance as Ivan, who was loosely based on Rhygin, a Jamaican outlaw folk hero from the 1950s.

Cliff was already a well-known reggae musician in Jamaica and, to a lesser extent, in England at the time. Although this was his only major film role, he proved to be a natural actor with an immense screen presence and a broad range. His Ivan is a dreamer, a man whose imagination of himself is much larger than his social reality allows him to be. Thus, it is only natural that he should embrace his criminal notoriety because he knows it is the only form of fame he will ever have.

Of course, what many will remember from The Harder They Come is the incredible soundtrack and its importance (along with the then-burgeoning career of Bob Marley) in introducing reggae music and Rastafarian culture to the United States. The soundtrack, which features three songs by Cliff ("The Harder They Come," "You Can Get It If You Really Want," and "Many Rivers to Cross") and several others by noted reggae musicians like Toots and the Maytals and Desmond Dekker, is fantastic at a musical level, but it is made even stronger in the way Henzell utilizes it in his narrative. Too often, a film's musical score, especially if it includes popular songs, draws too much attention to itself. The songs in The Harder They Come, on the other hand, blend seamlessly into the film text, commenting on the action (often ironically) and setting the tone for many scenes.

The Harder They Come made a strong impact when it was released, and it has flourished in cult status over the past 27 years. Although it didn't do much in the way of generating a Jamaican film industry (to date, only about 10 movies have been Jamaican productions), it did help Jamaica in forming its identity and displaying that identity to the rest of the world. Filled with poverty and desperation, yet undeniably alive and vivid, Jamaica (Kingston, in particular) is depicted as a place of contradictions and energy.

Like Ivan, its protagonist, The Harder They Come, in its own gritty, urban way, shows Jamaica as a country and reggae as a cultural way of life fighting to come into their own. The fact that, when the film was made, there was one recording studio in all of Jamaica and now there are close to 50 is testament to the success of Henzell's only film.

The Harder They Come: Criterion Collection Director-Approved Special Edition DVD

AudioDolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
Supplements Audio commentary with writer/director Perry Henzell and star Jimmy Cliff
Interview with Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records
Illustrated bio-discographies on the film's contributing musicians
DistributorThe Criterion Collection / Home Vision

The digital transfer in the film's original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, which was supervised and approved by director Perry Henzell, is good, but unavoidably limited by the source material (it is also, unfortunately, nonanamorphic). The overall look of the film is gritty and almost documentary-like in places (it was shot on 16-mm), so the image is not going to be perfect. The transfer was taken from the best possible source material, the original A/B camera negative, which results in a picture that is very smooth, with almost no grain and a bare minimum of scratches or dust (it was also digitally cleaned up). Overall color saturation is good, if a tad faded, with natural-looking fleshtones and no bleeding. Despite having an generally soft image, the detail level is very high. The transfer does suffer some in the night sequences, as these scenes were obviously shot with insufficient light, resulting in scenes that are murky and low in detail. Nevertheless, this rough quality adds to the film's presence and its realism.

The Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural soundtrack does a fine job of rendering the film's incredible soundtrack of reggae music with punch and vigor. Being mono, it has a certain lack of dimension that is unavoidable, but it still sounds clean and smooth, with almost no hiss or distortion. Thankfully, the disc includes optional English subtitles, which are advertised as being for the deaf and hearing impaired, but are also helpful to the Jamaican-dialect-impaired. While much of the dialogue in the film is discernable despite the heavy Jamaican accents, some of it is not, and the subtitles are indispensable in trying to follow the flow of some the conversations.

Criterion has outfitted this disc with a good set of extras that help situate the film in its proper socio-historical context and underline its importance in exporting reggae music and culture to the rest of the world. The disc features an excellent running audio commentary with writer/director Perry Henzell and star Jimmy Cliff. Recorded separately and then edited together, Henzell and Cliff talk about multiple aspects of the film, commenting on both the filming of specific scenes and how the film fits into the larger context of Jamaican culture. Henzell is quite articulate in discussing his filmmaking style, which generates realism through capturing "real life" on film and using nonprofessional actors.

In addition, there is a 10-minute interview, taped in 2000, with Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records, the label under which the film's best-selling soundtrack was released. Having lived in Jamaica and worked closely with Henzell, Blackwell gives an interesting angle on the importance of The Harder They Come and its impact on Jamaican culture.

Lastly, the disc offers half a dozen illustrated bio-discographies of the various artists who contributed to the film musically, including Jimmy Cliff, Desmond Dekker, and The Melodians. These bio-discographies are well-written and nicely illustrated with photos, and they function as a kind of crash course in the early history of reggae music in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Overall Rating: (3.5)

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