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 DanielHartman (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 hadnever seen itself on screen. Having earned independence from England a scant 10 yearsearlier, the small island nation in the West Indies was just beginning to form its own uniqueidentity, and The Harder They Come helped solidify it in both the minds ofJamaicans and in the eyes of the rest of the world.

The film, written by Henzell and Jamaican playwright Trevor D. Rhone (who wrote anddirected 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 asinger. He finds that breaking into the music business is next to impossible, and findinggeneral work is no easier. Early scenes show him being turned away from a constructionsite because he has no skills to offer, and at one point he begs a women to let him wash hercar or tend her garden.

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

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

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

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

The film is a hard-hitting social drama with revolutionary political overtones, but it isimmensely enjoyable and, at times, light-hearted. Although it is the only film Perry Henzellever directed, he displays an impressive command of the camera, successful moving amongvarious 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, thepieces all come together in a strong fabric that is held together by Jimmy Cliff's strongcentral performance as Ivan, who was loosely based on Rhygin, a Jamaican outlaw folkhero from the 1950s.

Cliff was already a well-known reggae musician in Jamaica and, to a lesser extent, inEngland at the time. Although this was his only major film role, he proved to be a naturalactor with an immense screen presence and a broad range. His Ivan is a dreamer, a manwhose 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 theonly form of fame he will ever have.

Of course, what many will remember from The Harder They Come is theincredible soundtrack and its importance (along with the then-burgeoning career of BobMarley) in introducing reggae music and Rastafarian culture to the United States. Thesoundtrack, which features three songs by Cliff ("The Harder They Come," "You Can GetIt If You Really Want," and "Many Rivers to Cross") and several others by noted reggaemusicians 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, afilm's musical score, especially if it includes popular songs, draws too much attention toitself. The songs in The Harder They Come, on the other hand, blend seamlesslyinto the film text, commenting on the action (often ironically) and setting the tone for manyscenes.

The Harder They Come made a strong impact when it was released, and it hasflourished in cult status over the past 27 years. Although it didn't do much in the way ofgenerating a Jamaican film industry (to date, only about 10 movies have been Jamaicanproductions), it did help Jamaica in forming its identity and displaying that identity to therest 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 theirown. The fact that, when the film was made, there was one recording studio in all ofJamaica and now there are close to 50 is testament to the success of Henzell's only film.

The Harder TheyCome: Criterion Collection Director-Approved Special EditionDVD

AudioDolby Digital1.0 Monaural
Supplements Audiocommentary 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
DistributorTheCriterion Collection / Home Vision

The digital transfer in the film's original 1.66:1 aspectratio, which was supervised and approved by director Perry Henzell, is good, butunavoidably limited by the source material (it is also, unfortunately, nonanamorphic). Theoverall look of the film is gritty and almost documentary-like in places (it was shot on16-mm), so the image is not going to be perfect. The transfer was taken from the bestpossible source material, the original A/B camera negative, which results in a picture that isvery smooth, with almost no grain and a bare minimum of scratches or dust (it was alsodigitally cleaned up). Overall color saturation is good, if a tad faded, with natural-lookingfleshtones and no bleeding. Despite having an generally soft image, the detail level is veryhigh. The transfer does suffer some in the night sequences, as these scenes were obviouslyshot 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 finejob 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 cleanand smooth, with almost no hiss or distortion. Thankfully, the disc includes optionalEnglish subtitles, which are advertised as being for the deaf and hearing impaired, but arealso helpful to the Jamaican-dialect-impaired. While much of the dialogue in the film isdiscernable despite the heavy Jamaican accents, some of it is not, and the subtitles areindispensable in trying to follow the flow of some the conversations.

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

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

Lastly, the disc offers half a dozen illustrated bio-discographies of the various artists whocontributed to the film musically, including Jimmy Cliff, Desmond Dekker, and TheMelodians. 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 1960sand early 1970s.

Copyright ©2000 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (3.5)

James Kendrick

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