Few cult films have enjoyed the continued impact of Perry Henzell's The Harder They Come. Since it's release in 1973, it's gained an underground following that is nothing less than legendary. It tipped off Americans to the existence of reggae (which at the time was hardly heard outside of Jamaica), and almost 30 years later acts as a visual textbook for Reggae 101. However, The Harder They Come is much more than a movie for neophyte reggae fans to check out for curiosityís sake. It's a very well made film in the spirit of Cassevettes and Fuller and even Godard. Famous for itís groovy soundtrack, The Harder They Come is certainly no musical. Itís an unvarnished snapshot of life in Jamaica.
Jimmy Cliff plays Ivan O. Martin, a character inspired by a legendary 1950s Jamaican outlaw named Ivanhoe Martin, better known as Rhygin. Like many real-life Jamaican youths, Ivan decides that life on a farm is not for him and heads to the big city with dreams of making it as a reggae star. Once he arrives in the noisy chaos of Kingston, it's clear that he's a fish out of water. Within 10 minutes of getting off the bus, he's bamboozled, robbed, and left to fend for himself on the mean streets of Kingston. Eventually he finds lodging with a stern preacher (Basil Keane), who employs Ivan as a gopher and constantly curses him for not walking the straight and narrow. A forbidden affair with the preacher's stepdaughter Elsa and a bitter knife fight with a fellow gopher (one of the most shocking fights ever put on film) has Ivan out on the streets again, but not before he's got his foot in the door at a recording studio for an audition.
After he cuts his first record, Ivan is introduced to the harsh reality of the Jamaican music industry: despite the fact that his song may become a big hit, Mr. Big Shot Producer (Robert Charlton) will only pay him a $20 flat fee. Disillusioned, Ivan ends up in cahoots with Jose (Carl Bradshaw), the local hoodlum who is the neighborhood's ganja dealer. Suddenly, Ivan is making more money as a soldier in the ganja trade then he ever would cutting records at $20 a song. The ambition that drove him to become a singer then drives Ivan to start cutting out the middleman and making more money for himself. This ambition doesnít go over very well with Jose, who enjoys his position as a neighborhood kingpin. Eventually, Ivan is betrayed by Jose and ambushed by the police, who he gleefully massacres before escaping. Once he runs Jose out of town, Ivan is the new boss -- a Jamaican public enemy number one who is loved by the public for his bravado and style. Like the real Rhygin, Ivan taunts the police by scrawling "I was here but I disappear" on the walls of buildings and sends photos of himself mugging for the camera with a pair of six shooters to the local newspapers.
Inevitably, the police close their net around Ivan. After attempting to jump a ship to Cuba and failing, he is lured into a showdown on the beach and goes out in a predictable blaze of glory.
Part neo-realist, part blaxploitation, part spaghetti western, The Harder They Come is an ambiguous movie. Danny Peary said it best in Cult Films: "viewers are usually unprepared for the dazzling and fearsome world Henzell plunges us into." Indeed. Viewers expecting a breezy musical drama about a young singer making it big will be sent reeling at the gritty story that instead unfolds.
The Harder They Come is the first film in a lost trilogy that director Henzell had planned; he completed a good deal of footage for his second film, Power Game, but that footage was tragically lost. Disgusted, Henzell walked away from filmmaking, falling back on his work as a commercial director. "I consider myself a real filmmaker the way Ken Loach or Cassevettes is. And none of those people worked for ten years!" Henzell says with a good-natured Jamaican lilt. "When I made Harder They Come, realism was my obsession, and it went seriously out of style." Outside of films like Rome, Open City or Bicycle Thieves, The Harder They Come is as realistic as you can get. Part of this has to do with the harsh reality of life in Jamaica at the time and Henzellís desire to honestly portray it. Part of it is simply good filmmaking. Like many of the French New Wave directors, Henzell preferred to work without a script, improvising dialogue along the way and shooting on location on the streets of Kingston. The Harder They Come -- like some of Orson Wellesí difficult 1950s projects -- was produced in fits and starts, made over a period of time when and if Henzell could scrounge up enough money to make it happen. Other times, the production was held up when players (many of them non-actors) disappeared for weeks or got arrested.
Besides the neo-realist slant to the film, the other major influence of The Harder They Come is certainly the French New Wave, which was also beginning to influence some American films of the early '70s. Just as Godard and Truffaut didnít mind messing with the usual conventions of narrative film, Henzell uses jump cuts, wild flashbacks, and includes many moments that do nothing to further the plot but do much to enhance the mood of the film. The New Wave influence on The Harder They Come is most striking in the filmís conclusion, as Henzell intercuts shots of a Jamaican movie audience as the action unfolds. Just like the spaghetti western that Ivan was enjoying a few days before, he is now starring in his own shoot-'em-up. The shots of the raucous audience cheering on Ivan within the film is brilliant. Henzell says that he wanted to achieve the opposite effect of Arthur Pennís slow-motion cameras at the end of Bonnie And Clyde. He cut out every fourth frame of the sequence, and so Ivanís violent death is made more shocking by itís suddeness.
The Harder They Come is a unique cult film in the sense that its soundtrack is probably better known than the film itself. A reggae best seller, it contains many wonderful songs by star Jimmy Cliff as well as other Jamaican stalwarts such as Toots & The Maytals and Desmond Dekker. However, to say that music is the driving force of the movie is an overstatement, but music does provide a crucial backdrop to the story. "I'd rather be a free man in my grave / than living as a puppet or a slave / so as sure as the sun will shine / I'm gonna get my share of what's mine," Ivan sings in the film's title track. If there is a raison díetre for Ivan, those lines nicely sum it up. What makes Penzellís use of reggae throughout the film so striking is how it acts as more than just a soundtrack. It can be more properly described as a score, as the director perfectly matches the music to his visuals. Easily the greatest example is the use of Toots & The Maytalsí scorching "Pressure Drop." As we see Jose storming his way through the narrow, dirty streets of Trenchtown looking to gun down Ivan, the song is heard simmering in the background as Jose broods in a voiceover: "Who is this asshole? Where did he come from? I gave him money, gave him a bike, a place to liveÖ When I find him, heís dead. Dead! Iíve controlled this place since birthÖ" Ivan then gets the drop on Jose, who turns chicken and runs. As Ivan races after him, guns blazing, the music suddenly boils over, moving to the foreground. "Now when it drops / Youíre gonna feel it / All that you are doing is wrongÖ" Martin Scorcese and Quentin Tarantino must wish they had created a scene like this.
The Criterion Collectionís DVD release of The Harder They Come was done with the special co-operation of Henzell, who is understandably guarded about his solitary masterpiece. Created from the original 16mm negative and presented in the directorís preferred aspect ratio of 1.66:1, the negative was cleaned up when necessary and so the transfer probably looks better today then it did in on the screens in 1973. As well, the audio was mastered from the original optical tracks and is crystal clear. Previous video editions of the film have been of rather poor quality, so this clean and crisp DVD presentation is wonderful.
The extras include an entertaining (but not very enlightening) interview with Island Records founder Chris Blackwell and brief biographies of the musicians whose music is featured in the film. Most fascinating is an audio commentary track from Henzell and star Jimmy Cliff. They both provide many insights into the making of the film and the experience of making it. Often times Henzell can be heard describing what his thinking was during certain scenes, other times he provides a vibrant context to the action, and other times heís simply shooting the breeze, as if heís there with you on the couch.
All in all, The Harder They Come isnít just a film, itís an experience. That might sound cliched, but after youíve seen it, youíll know what all the fuss is about.
The Harder They Come is now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection in a new widescreen digital transfer (aspect ratio 1.66:1) supervised by writer-director Perry Henzell. The disc includes audio commentary by Perry Henzell and star Jimmy Cliff; an exclusive video interview with Island Records founder Chris Blackwell; and illustrated bio-discographies on the film's contributing musicians. Suggested retail price: $39.95. For more information, check out The Criterion Collection Web site.