Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: The Harder They Come: The Criterion Collection (1973)
Studio Line: Criterion

Reggae superstar Jimmy Cliff is Ivan, a rural Jamaican musician who journeys to the city of Kingston in search of fame and fortune. Pushed to desperate circumstances by shady record producers and corrupt cops, he finally achieves notoriety -- as a murderous outlaw. Boasting some of the greatest music ever produced in Jamaica, Perry Henzell's The Harder They Come brought the catchy and subversive rhythms of the Rastas to the U.S. in the early 70's. Criterion is proud to present this underground classic in a new Director Approved special edition.

Director: Perry Henzell
Cast: Jimmy Cliff, Janet Barkley, Carl Bradshaw, Ras Daniel Hartman, Basil Keane, Bobby Charlton, Winston Stona
DVD: Widescreen 1.66:1; audio English Digital Mono; subtitles none; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 26 chapters; rated NR; 103 min.; $39.95; street date 10/31/00.
Supplements: Audio Commentary by Perry Henzell and Star Jimmy Cliff; Exclusive Video Interview with Island Records Founder Chris Blackwell; Illustrated Bio-Discographies on the Film's Contributing Musicians.
Purchase: DVD | Novel - Michael Thelwell | Score soundtrack - Various Artists

Picture/Sound/Extras: B-/D+/B-

When most folks think of Jamaica, they likely associate the country with laid-back, content folks who have no concerns other than when they’ll spark their next spliffs. As seen in 1973’s reggae-gangster classic The Harder They Come, that’s not really the truth. Instead, we find a nation with a heavy population of poor citizens who aspire to better things but who find the cards stacked against them.

Into this situation comes Ivan Martin (Jimmy Cliff), a naïve country-boy who enters the urban world to make his fortune as a musician. The rude realities of the big city quickly grab Ivan by the throat and start to choke the life out of him. He tries to make an honest living through both manual labor and via his musical talents but corruption and general mean-spiritedness prevent his ascension.

Eventually Ivan becomes involved in the drug trade as a low-level worker. This facet of the story again demonstrates the difficulties of folks at his socioeconomic status, as Ivan absorbs all of the risks while his bosses have few concerns. Eventually the threats get to him and he takes violent action; after that point, Ivan becomes an outlaw, one whose actions are supported by the people who are happy to see someone on their side for once.

At its heart, The Harder They Come is little more than a gangster movie with a twist, but it’s a raw and fairly vital piece of work. Director Perry Henzell lacked even the remotest form of polish, but the crudeness evident in his style actually tends to work for the story; since the setting is so grimy and disturbed, the film’s absence of elegance fits the piece nicely and makes it more effective.

Also solid is Cliff’s turn as Ivan. Cliff’s main claim to fame is as a musician; other than a minor role in 1986’s comedy Club Paradise, THTC marks his only acting stint. Cliff seems somewhat awkward and stiff at times, but he brings a fierce pride to the part that becomes especially important as Ivan transforms from innocent country boy to cocky gangster.

Ultimately, The Harder They Come doesn’t reinvent the genre but it provides an interesting take on the form. The combination of raw visuals with unforced acting and a soundtrack full of effectively-used reggae tunes makes the movie work fairly well as a whole.

The DVD:

The Harder They Come appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.66:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Though it presented quite a few concerns, the movie also had a lot of strengths and it generally seemed very watchable.

For the most part, sharpness appeared quite strong. The majority of the movie looked crisp and detailed. A few instances of blurriness occurred, but most of these seemed to result from the technical crudeness of the production; as we learn in the audio commentary, director Perry Henzell favors a raw look and feel to his films, so I’d guess that he ignored the fact some shots were out of focus. A few scenes do come across as fuzzy and bland, but most are clear. Moiré effects and jagged edges presented no significant serious concerns.

Print flaws seemed more substantially problematic, however. Much of the movie looked clean and fresh, but various defects appeared at times. Light grain cropped up fairly frequently, and I also saw minor scratches, dirt, grit, and speckles. The variation among elements can be strong; some scenes are gloriously vivid while others appear fairly sloppy.

Colors generally came across as bright and bold, and during the film’s many daytime shots, they could be genuinely dazzling; on those occasions, the movie was a joy to watch. At worst, the hues appeared slightly flat and drab, but for the most part, the colors offered the most consistently strong elements of the image. Black levels, however, tended to be too deep and dark, and shadow detail often was fairly impenetrable. Night-time scenes had the most significant problems in this regard, but any low-light sequences proved excessively opaque. Despite this roster of flaws, I generally found The Harder They Come to look attractive; the many high points neatly balance the occasional weaknesses.

Much weaker was the monaural soundtrack of THTC. Although it manifested some moments of clarity, the mix generally seemed quite problematic. Dialogue frequently became harsh and sibilant and often was virtually unintelligible. Granted, this concern was exacerbated by the many thick Jamaican accents heard in the film, but even for a suburban white boy like me, I shouldn’t have so much difficulty discerning speech; the lines seemed muffled and thick, and many scenes appeared to have been poorly dubbed.

Music was an integral part of the film, but it also showed many concerns. At times, songs came across as clear and fairly crisp; they never appeared particularly bright or dynamic, but some tunes - such as “Many Rivers To Cross” - were acceptably smooth and listenable. However, other songs appeared horribly distorted and brash. “You Can Get It If You Really Want” opened the film in terrible style; it was a sonic mess.

Effects fared better than did the rest of the mix, but this may have happened because they were the least important aspect of the track; music and dialogue played much stronger roles. In general, effects appeared thin but reasonably clear. They also betrayed some distortion at times, but not to the degree heard in the remainder of the track. Inexplicably, audio quality improved moderately as the movie progressed; it remained erratic but seemed less problematic. Nonetheless, the soundtrack of THTC proved quite weak.

The Harder They Come includes a few supplements. The most significant of these is an audio commentary from director Perry Henzell and star Jimmy Cliff. As with most Criterion commentaries, both participants were recorded separately and their remarks were edited together. Though some dislike the lack of spontaneity that comes from this method, I prefer it because it increases the coherency of the tracks and eliminates much of the dead time that can dominate other discussions.

In this case, Henzell provides most of the commentary’s information, although most of it doesn’t directly address THTC. Instead, he talks about his career, his thoughts about filmmaking - he apparently dislikes the “phoniness” he sees in professional actors - and the Jamaican climate during the making of the film. Cliff adds some similar information and remarks upon his music and other aspects of the movie. Ultimately, I thought that the track started slowly but eventually provided a wealth of valuable details about the film and tangential sides of its creation.

Next we get an “Interview with Chris Blackwell”. The founder of Island Records, Blackwell has long been involved with the music scene in Jamaica and this 10 minute and 10 second piece provides a lot of solid details. Blackwell discusses the history of the business and political environment in the film’s era and also gives his own perspective. In addition to shots of Blackwell, this segment features film clips and some production photos. We also find a good text biography of Blackwell.

In “The Musicians”, we discover biographies of Cliff, Desmond Dekker, the Maytals, the Melodians, Scotty, and the Slickers. Though the level of detail varies - the entry for Cliff offers much greater depth than that of the Slickers - overall these were some solid biographies and discographies.

Finally, the DVD features an essay in its booklet. By film critic Michael Dare, this text provides a fairly solid overview of the movie’s history and the era in which it was made. Some of the information was a little redundant after the commentary and the Blackwell interview, but I still found the essay to offer enough good material to warrant a read.

Ultimately, I didn’t think that The Harder They Come was a great film, as it has too many flaws to warrant that kind of status. However, it does provide a compelling and evocative take on the gangster genre, largely due to the electric presence of star Jimmy Cliff. The DVD features pretty good picture plus some nice extras, but the sound quality was fairly poor. Nonetheless, fans of both reggae and gangster films may want to give this film a look.

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