Dir.: Perry Hanzell; Cast: Jimmy Cliff, Janet Bartley, Carl Bradshaw, Ras Daniel Hartman Bobby Charlton, Basil Keene, Winston Stona; Jamaica 1972, 104 min.
When Jamaican director/co-writer Perry Hanzell (1946-2006) came to Venice Film Festival fifty years ago, not many people watched his debut, the first Jamaican feature The Harder they Come. Only select screenings, away from the Lido, led press to the discovery of a US distributor in shape of Roger Corman’s New World Film. And while time has not always best served this singular movie, it is still a monumental achievement. There is a raw quality which can only be appreciated by Jamaica’s post-colonial status, just ten years after Independence.
Ivan (Cliff) arrives in Kingston from the countryside hoping to make a career as a singer and songwriter. Taking a job with the local preacher (Keene), he soon falls out with him after talking his ward Elsa (Bartley) into letting him use the church for a recording session. When Ivan tries to claim a bicycle from his successor, as the preacher’s handyman, the man denies his claim, and the two end up in a brall. Instead of prison, Ivan is sentenced to eight lashes – a public humiliation he will never forget. Ivan is finally manages to record a single, but his promoter only pays him twenty dollars. Desperate for cash, Ivan calls on his friend Jose (Bradshaw) who lntroduces him to a police protected drug ring involved in moving hash from the countryside to the city.
Although the law usually gives Ivan a wide berth on his drug-running tours, one day he panics and kills a police officer who flags him down on his motor cycle. Ivan is now a wanted man, and what’s worse, he shoots three more policemen. Pedro (Hartman) helps Ivan to hide, but detective Jones (Stona), the ringleader, shuts the operation down, until such time as Ivan is killed or handed over to him. In a wild last reel, Ivan tries to escape to Cuba but is too weak to swim to the rescue vessel. On the beach, imagining he is the hero of an Italo-Western he watched soon after arriving in Kingston, Ivan is attacked by the whole police force, But his record is great hit, making a fortune for the record producer.
The second line of the title reads “They harder they fall” and this is very much true for Ivan. His one-man assault of everyone in power has to end badly. But he takes it like a man: mixing cinema and life, and is only to grateful to get some when applause, even at the end. Ivan is the archetypal loner, a ‘Django’ without the skills to survive. Furious and uncontrolled in the style of this iconic feature, Ivan loves his life on the fast lane – whatever the cost. The Harder they Come is a sledgehammer, its blows still rain down today. AS
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