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Down by Law: The Criterion Collection

Home Vision Entertainment

Starring Tom Waits, John Lurie and Roberto Benigni

Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch

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Review by Dawn Taylor                    

Jim Jarmusch's 1986 Down by Law is a black-and-white masterpiece of dark comedy, a criminal fairy tale about broken-down New Orleans losers who like black coffee, loose women, and speak with poetic street patter. Gravel-voiced troubadour Tom Waits plays Zack, a slacker deejay who's framed for murder. Tossed into prison, he shares a cell with Jack (John Lurie), a pimp who was also framed — he went down for child molestation, set up by a dissatisfied john — and Roberto (Roberto Benigni, back before he got precious and annoying), an Italian tourist who prefers to be called "Bob." The movie lazily documents the three as they do their time together, and then escape from prison.

The many quirky charms of this languid, witty film are difficult to describe, but one scene exemplifies both Down by Law and Jarmusch's oddball hipster sensibilities. While playing a game of cards in their cell, Jack makes a "roar-of-the-crowd" noise of victory and Bob asks what he's doing. "Screaming," Jack tells him. "Ahhh," Bob says, and digs out his notepad, on which he faithfully scribbles English phrases. "I scream/you scream/we all scream for ice cream," he reads aloud. Thinking they don't see the humor, Bob starts repeating it — I-a screama, You-a screama, we all-a screama for ice-a creama. At first it's funny, then it's annoying, then Jack joins in and finally Zack starts up the chant, too. Eventually they have all the other prisoners chanting "I scream/you scream/we all scream for ice cream" from their cells, as the three dance around in a circle until the guards come and tell them to keep it down. It's the sort of low-key comedy that's as hilarious as it absurd, and the basically plotless Down by Law is made up of many such moments. It's a drawn-out film with a unique sense of timing; most of the story focuses on the three cellmates killing time, Samuel Beckett-like, and the charm comes almost entirely from the dialogue. Eventually the three escape, but the subsequent squabbling over where the main highway is and which way to travel makes it plain that, inside prison or out, these three are never really going anywhere.

Released two years after Jarmusch's attention-getting Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law is the work of a filmmaker who's assured, yet still finding his way. The pacing is languorous to the point of annoyance at times, but the imagery is beautiful — especially in the opening sequence, with homes in New Orleans' seedier districts lazily drifting to the strains of Waits' cover of "Hernando's Hideaway" — and the director's gift for offbeat characters and dialogue is evident. Although Jarmusch really didn't hit his stride until 1989's Mystery Train, the patient viewer will find a lot to love in this small, stark, constructivist exploration of three of cinema's most intriguing losers.

*          *          *

Criterion's DVD release of Down by Law is, as usual, stunning. The new anamorphic transfer (1.78:1) was supervised by Jarmusch and is phenomenal. This is a gorgeous movie, and the rich, textural work by cinematographer Robby Müller (Breaking the Waves, Paris, Texas, Dancer in the Dark) has never looked better than it does here. The monaural audio is very clean, with both the dialogue and the music (songs by Waits, score by Lurie) coming through clear and distinct.

Extras on the two-disc set include the featurette Thoughts and Reflections by Jim Jarmusch about the making of Down by Law, recorded in June 2002 and broken up into 29 chapters. It's a pretty straightforward explanation of casting and directorial choices, and surprisingly dry.

A 22-minute Interview with Robby Müller was videotaped in June 2002 for this release. Müller says that Jarmusch's only directions to him were that "it's just like a fairy tale." He gets into a lot of meaty technical details regarding his choices in cameras, lenses, lighting, film stock, etc. A real treat for technophiles.

A section on the 1986 Cannes Film Festival features a group interview for the media, plus an interview with John Lurie done in Cannes at the time. This segment comes with a newly recorded commentary track by Lurie, who starts off saying "I have no idea who that guy is ... those sunglasses have got to go" and goes on to describe the experience of watching this footage as "mortifying." He also recalls that he was both hungover and on drugs at the time.

24 minutes of outtakes are provided, all of them as incidental in nature as the finished film. While interesting to hardcore Jarmusch fans, there's nothing here that really shines or that the movie would have been better off including. An alternate ending is presented as well. Picture and audio quality for these clips varies greatly.

There's a music video of Tom Waits singing Cole Porter's "It's All Right with Me," directed by Jarmusch for the 1989 "Red, Hot + Blue" AIDS benefit. Tom Waits is one odd duck ... you gotta love him.

A March 2002 recording, Q&A with Jim Jarmusch, has Jarmusch answering questions sent via e-mail regarding such things as how he pronounces his name and why Tom Waits "fights like a pussy" in the movie.

A series of phone calls between Jarmusch and Waits, Benigni, and Lurie about the movie are included. It's more a cute gimmick than especially informative.

Audio options include an isolated music track and a French dub audio track; a selection under the audio menu allows the viewer to hear Jarmusch's thoughts on dubbing (he's generally against it, but he allowed the French dub of this film on the condition that Benigni get to dub his own lines, since he actually speaks French).

Two menus of Polaroid test shots and production stills are included, as well as the curiously Dadaesque theatrical trailer, a bit of promotion that explains absolutely nothing about the movie. The assumption seems to have been that existing Jarmusch fans and art-movie lovers would be intrigued, and that was all the audience they could hope for. The trailer is murky and grainy and the sound is muddy — in other words, it looks just like the movie itself did during most of its theatrical presentations, making the digital transfer of the movie all the more sweet by comparison.

— Dawn Taylor

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