The Harder They Come (1973)

D: Perry Henzell
S: Jimmy Cliff, Janet Barkley

Rough edged Jamaican musical gangster film. Reggae singer Jimmy Cliff plays a naive country boy who comes to Kingston with dreams of being a reggae star only to find poverty, corruption and a thriving casual drugs trade controlled by the police force and local petty criminals. He briefly finds solace working for a Preacher, but when he falls for and seduces his young female ward (Janet Barkley) and assaults a local bully, he finds himself drifting. He makes a record, but it is stolen by the producer (who controls the radio stations and clubs because he is the only supplier). Eventually he becomes a drug courier, and decides on seeing the huge profits being made by dealers in America that he wants a larger piece of the action. He has a run in with his own superiors, then with the police, which makes him a celebrity. His record suddenly hits the charts and he becomes elevated to the status of a folk hero. The stage is set for violent confrontation with the authorities as the army closes in for a final showdown on a sandy beach.

At once a rejoinder to romantic images of the Caribbean and a hokey variant on an old, old formula, Perry Henzell's film is given an edge by its sheer amateurish enthusiasm. Its busy plot far overstuffs the brief running time and there is little in the way of convincing characterisation, but the authentic feeling which comes from seeing the shanties and slums of Kingston juxtaposed with the high life of the black bourgeoisie helps to make the film a modern day successor to those original 1930s gangster films in which the criminal's milieu was as important as his actions. The film is so direct in its attacks upon the moral and social hierarchy that it barely has time to work out a plan. It merely hits at the target with simple, to the point scenes in which Cliff confronts each of his oppressors (none of them white, it should be noted) until his frustrations eventually take him into a self-enforced delusion of his own heroism.

Curiously the film deliberately disavows the American generic heritage which is obvious from the structure (the rise and fall of the gangster: a staple since Little Caesar and The Public Enemy). Instead Cliff takes his inspiration from a viewing of the Spaghetti western Django, especially the scene where Franco Nero guns down his opposition on a muddy street. The sequence is repeated as a series of intercuts during the climax, making explicit the connection between the two and again wryly commentating upon social and psychological causes and effects of crime and criminal behaviour.

Like the traditional gangster film, it does not so much condemn Cliff's actions as place them in context. Society itself is the real target, the source of his difficulties, and when not active in causing his trouble it represses and exploits him. His recourse to crime is all his own, of course, and his violent behaviour is more like the errant action of a child than a mature adult, and though he is held up as a hero, we realise that in the end justice will take its course and he must learn his lesson.

Cliff is engaging in the lead, buoyed by an infectiously meaningful song score performed by the man himself (among others). Particularly important are the opening theme "You Can Get It If You Really Want," which becomes a refrain stating the irony of the character's situation like the banner "The World is Yours: Cook's Tours," in Howard Hawks' Scarface, and the title tune which spells out the message and is reprised many times throughout the narrative. Music and the musical culture of Reggae is an important element in the film, and amid the noise and haste of the script, there are many moments which turn on the role music plays in the characters lives as a form of expression and as a cornerstone of cultural identity.

The film is interesting enough on its own terms to warrant some attention, but is probably best appreciated relative to its generic forebears and as an appropriation of inherited western structures to explore a hybrid culture. Casual viewers may get a kick out of it, though some prints are subtitled to help with the accents and dialect.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.