Cinema: Ha'penny Opera

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Fast, tough, sinuous, with a score of Jamaican reggae that jauntily accentuates its vigor, this saga of the career of a small-time pot pusher and pop star is a kind of Caribbean Threepenny Opera. It does not have the depth, but it does have some of the energy and a little of the fury, the same sort of lovingly savage feeling for the brash ethos of the underworld.

The hero, called Ivan, is stylishly played by Jimmy Cliff, a Jamaican musician who has an insinuating, almost feral appeal. Poor and aimless, Ivan wanders about Jamaica, hoping vaguely to be a singer. It is an ambition he fulfills the way he finds a girl friend, the way he starts pushing, and the way, finally, he gets killed: by falling into it. The movie even attempts a kind of Brechtian device: Ivan attends a film, one of those baroque Italian westerns, and dotes on the hero, knowing that he is immune to all real danger until the last reel. When Ivan meets his own end, cut down by a crew of hapless cops in the last reel of The Harder They Come, Director Perry Henzell cuts in shots of Ivan laughing at and applauding the western.

It is an interesting and ambitious notion, but one that does not quite fit into the structure of the film; it is almost a frill. What works better is the idea that Ivan is not only mesmerized by such mock-heroic displays, but much influenced and shaped by them. Throughout the film, he is ground down and exploited. His fantasy of breaking out of his grim world by becoming a celebrity is exploded when the music producer, who controls distribution of nearly all records on the island, offers him $20 for his song—take it or leave it. Too proud at first to accept, Ivan becomes desperate enough to pocket the money and wait around to become famous. When that does not happen, Ivan's recourse is to become a dope dealer and, almost by accident, a desperado. This means of escape turns out to be a true means to an end. It kills him and it makes him famous, lets him live out his fantasies of movie heroism with childish pleasure and flamboyance until he dies, gun in hand, on a secluded beach.

The Harder They Come (the title itself has a certain chiding irony) benefits immeasurably from having been made in Jamaica. Indeed, it is the first full-fledged Jamaican feature, and it gives a view of the island—shabby houses, tense little nightclubs and baked-out countryside—that is not part of the standard paradise tour. For all its naive charm, the movie is not consistently successful. Its crudities of characterization and carelessness about certain matters of plot give it a kind of jerry-built look. But The Harder They Come is always exuberant, and sometimes strong, as casually surprising and effortlessly sinister as the blade sliding out of a gravity knife. - Jay Cocks