Thoughts On: The Harder They Come - Crime, Punishment & Insight

27/06/2018

The Harder They Come - Crime, Punishment & Insight

Thoughts On: The Harder They Come (1972)


Made by Perry Henzell, this is the Jamaican film of the series.


The Harder They Come is widely considered to be one of the most important films to have come out of Jamaica for the fact that it help spread Reggae music across the world. Despite its acclaim and cult-status, however, I cannot say that this is a particularly good, or virtuous, movie.

The Harder They Come follows an aspiring Reggae artist as he tries to make it in the industry and sell his songs. Along the way he is entangled in a life of crime that boosts his popularity and star power. Juxtaposed with the ascent is then a clear descent, and whilst the relationship between these two contradictory arcs of character embodied by Jimmy Cliff's Ivanhoe is acknowledged by the movie, there is no substantial commentary on it. Instead, Ivanhoe is supposed to be an amalgamation of a Clint Eastwood character and Clint Eastwood himself - killer on the screen, celebrity in the real world - however, the dichotomy is reversed: Ivanhoe is a killer in the real world and a preaching celebrity of sorts in his songs. With this character glorified and painted as a tragic hero, his only apparently redeeming characteristic being the fact that he starts poor and is "oppressed" by religion, law and show business, he becomes the centre-piece of some rather mindless want-to-be entertainment.

Technically, this is a satisfactory movie. In the first act, the direction employs some sharp and persistently interesting montage that gives the movie punch, presence and rhythm. This wanes slightly as the narrative continues, but arises intermittently with the cinematic language using depth of field alongside the fast cutting and zooms to translate information efficiently and effectively. Alas, as the technical work builds towards a more complicated stylistic sensibility, the narrative becomes more benign. Furthermore, whilst the songs are arguably the strongest aspect of this narrative, they all start out in abundance and strongly; however, around the mid-point, this stops being a musical and becomes a crime film, which puts the music in the background where it loops constantly, leaving once catchy songs somewhat annoying.

The greatest failure of this narrative is ultimately not the fact that it is trying to be a crime movie without redemptive character arcs or substantial social commentary. It is more than possible to construct a narrative such as this; we need only look to some of the greatest American crime films in Goodfellas, The Godfather, Taxi Driver and more to realise this. The greatest failure of The Harder They Come is its misunderstanding of how good crime movies operate.

If one looks to the Spaghetti Westerns, a class of film that The Harder They Come seems to resemble to a degree, you often will find stories that glorify the anti-hero. However, the Spaghetti Western's use of style and ambiguous morality so often accumulate substantial meaning, powerful archetypes, iconic characters and investing entertainment. The Harder They Come lacks this.

In the likes of Goodfellas, there is a use of an anti-hero and his life provides ironic, sardonic commentary on the darker side of society without trying to play a victim game. What is more, there is insight given into the 'other world' of crime. We see this, too, in The Godfather: social commentary through the 'other world' as well as insight into it. And so often these two elements accompany minor tragedy in us seeing characters we grow to like (but who are nonetheless amoral or evil) punished. This punishment in The Godfather and Goodfellas is not as simple as death or imprisonment, however. The punishment received in these films is what characters become evil to avoid; Henry Hill is punished by being forced to live a normal life, and Michael sees his family fall apart when all he desired was to uphold his family name. This existential punishment alongside the insight into who characters are and what their world is is not present in The Harder They Come, but it is what makes better crime films entertaining and substantial. The 'tragedy' to end The Harder They Come's narrative is juxtaposed with the success of our singer; the movies final point being that the police are oppressors and the criminal the virtuous entertainer - nonsense.

So, in the end, there is something to learn in watching The Harder They Come. In short, this is not how to construct a good crime film. One may also hear some good music, but you might just grow sick of it after an hour or so.

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