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Down by Law: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review

Down by Law (1986) movie poster Down by Law

Theatrical Release: September 20, 1986 / Running Time: 107 Minutes / Rating: R

Writer/Director: Jim Jarmusch / Songs List

Cast: Tom Waits (Zack/Lee Baby Simms), John Lurie (Jack), Roberto Benigni (Roberto "Bob"), Ellen Barkin (Laurette), Billie Neal (Bobbie), Rockets Redglare (Fatso/Gig), Vernel Bagneris (Preston), Nicoletta Braschi (Nicoletta), Timothea (Julie), L.C. Drane (L.C.), Joy Houck Jr. (Detective Mandino), Carrie Lindsoe (Young Girl), Ralph Joseph (Detective), Richard Boes (Detective), Dave Petitjean (Cajun Detective)

Buy Down by Law from Amazon.com: Criterion Collection Blu-ray • Criterion Collection DVD

Jim Jarmusch has been making movies for over thirty years now, but it would be so very easy for you to have never encountered his work. Jarmusch writes and directs not for commerce, but for art.
His highest grossing film, 2005's Broken Flowers, earned under $15 million domestically and under $50 M worldwide. Three-time collaborator Bill Murray isn't the only big-name actor Jarmusch has cast; he's also had Johnny Depp (Dead Man) and Forest Whitaker (Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai) in lead roles. Nonetheless, seemingly unconcerned with making a living, Jarmusch has only given us films when it suits him and several years typically pass between each limited release.

And yet, Jarmusch is respected not only by craft-minded film actors, but also by fellow filmmakers, by critics, and by The Criterion Collection. The lattermost of those, the boutique line dedicated to treating important cinema with the utmost care, has now released five of Jarmusch's eleven features. Yesterday, Down by Law became the second of those five issued on Blu-ray Disc.

Released theatrically in September 1986, Down by Law was Jarmusch's third film and his second shot in black and white. This original drama tells the story of three strangers in New Orleans who wind up sharing a cell in prison, from which they together escape.

Jim Jarmusch's "Down by Law" centers on three men (Tom Waits, John Lurie, and Roberto Benigni) who end up sharing a New Orleans prison cell.

This leisurely-paced film opens in two different bedrooms. Zack (Tom Waits) is an out-of-work radio disc jockey (stage name: Lee Baby Simms) whose girlfriend Laurette (Ellen Barkin) is not happy with him. She throws punches and insults at him, while flinging his large collection of records and even his prized shoes out into the night street. Meanwhile, in another part of town, rising pimp Jack (John Lurie), is being questioned and put down by his prostitute Bobbie (Billie Neal).

Both of the chastised, unfazed men are soon framed for crimes: Zack is pulled over driving a stolen car with a corpse in the trunk, while Jack walks into a police sting in which he is linked sexually to a considerably underage girl. We don't see any due process. Next thing we know, Jack and Zack are butting heads as cellmates, reluctant to open up to one another, but seeing no other way to pass the long, boring days in close proximity.

The two are joined by Roberto (Life is Beautiful's Roberto Benigni), a friendly Italian man who insists they call him Bob. Along with Zack, we have seen the language-challenged foreigner briefly before, but neither seems to remember the occasion, nor does it matter. Bob is there for manslaughter, a crime he admits to as the unintended result of cheating at cards. With his seemingly random questions about and quoted Italian translations of Walt Whitman, Bob is the unlikely mastermind of an escape plan. Again, we aren't shown some of the action, only the aftermath: with the three men, still in prison clothes, evading authorities and their tracking dogs.

With no clear game plan on the outside, the three convicts struggle to find their way and to survive in the woods of Louisiana, until they run into some incredibly good luck in the film's closing minutes.

Escaped convict Bob (Roberto Benigni) opens up about his family while cooking a freshly-caught rabbit in the Louisiana woods. Having swapped coats, Jack (John Lurie) and Zack (Tom Waits) prepare to part ways down divergent paths at the end of the film.

Down by Law may challenge your impression that business is a consideration for every film made. Though made for next to nothing (the $1.1 M budget estimate seems liberal), the film seems to have no interest in turning a profit,
with execution more likely to prompt walkouts than repeat visits. Jarmusch favors long, uninterrupted takes, in which the immobile camera captures intimate scenes from a moderate distance. The interactions reveal more about the characters than about the story. In fact, the few personalities, and not the threadbare semblance of a plot, drive the film.

Many viewers will find the approach tedious or taxing. You simply cannot make a movie as distanced from convention as Down by Law is without a good part of the audience declaring you pretentious or indulgent. I consider myself a seasoned and cultured fan of film and even I had some reservations about this, the fourth and probably least favorite Jarmusch picture I've seen. Tempting though it may be, you cannot entirely write off Down by Law, with its slowly unfolding, claustrophobic tale of wronged lowlifes. Benigni breathes a lot of life into the film's second half, his comic dynamo surprisingly well-suited to the stale air shared by his hard, gruff, downtrodden fellow prisoners.

Jarmusch's atypical choices add intrigue to the film. Rather than dating it, the black and white actually gives Down by Law timelessness, making it difficult to believe the film is already over a quarter-century old. The methodical pacing ensures that every image we see holds weight, from a freshly-dumped Zack slowly slipping on his favorite shoes on a curb to Bob consulting his notepad of acquired English jokes and phrases. At times, the film can be utterly arresting, as when Bob's thickly-accented application of the old "I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream" phrase catches on and nearly starts a riot in the largely unseen jail. More often, the film holds our attention and enables us to experience vicariously the mundane life of confined sort-of criminals who have caught a bad break.

Down by Law was recognized in a variety of countries: France (at the Cannes Film Festival), Denmark, Italy, and Norway. In the US, it received limited release from young, short-lived distributor Island Pictures, who scored a bigger hit the same season with Spike Lee's debut film She's Gotta Have It. Down received four nominations from the Independent Spirit Awards, then in just their second year, but lost each to an Oliver Stone film (three of them to Platoon). In 2002, Down gained some visibility when Criterion debuted it on DVD in a 2-disc set assigned spine #166. Now, with the same spine number, the film has hit Blu-ray Disc for the first time.

Down by Law: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.78:1 Widescreen
LPCM 1.0 Mono (English), Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
Subtitles: English
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: July 17, 2012
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Suggested Retail Price: $39.95
Clear Keepcase
Still available as 2-Disc DVD ($24.95 SRP; October 22, 2002)


Down by Law looks magnificent on Blu-ray Disc. It's probably because black and white movies are typically older and therefore more visually troubled, but this transfer really shines. I noticed a tiny bit of light grain early on but afterwards, everything was clean and crisp throughout. Framed in the director's preferred 1.78:1 ratio, the picture boasts great detail, clarity, and consistency. New black & white cinema can't help but feel gimmicky these days, but this Blu-ray presentation clearly speaks to its power and beauty. Encoded in 1.0 LPCM, the uncompressed monaural audio soundtrack doesn't command as much attention or praise, but it does a perfectly satisfactory job of dispensing clearly intelligible dialogue and Lurie's low-key, incidental score.

A number of audio supplements give you plenty of time to inspect this 1986 photo of writer/director Jim Jarmusch. Dutch cinematographer Robby Mόller rolls a cigarette as he reflects on "Down by Law."


Like most of Criterion's Blu-ray upgrades of titles they previously released on DVD, Down by Law hangs on to its existing supplements, and now offers them in HD resolution (if not 1080p clarity).

The extras begin with "Thoughts and Reflections" (1:13:18), a 2002 audio interview with Jarmusch. It seems like this could have played over the film like a commentary, instead of simply a still image of Jarmusch, but then, we'd have no screen-specificity and over a half-hour of dead air if stretched out that way. We hear the answers, but not the questions; the writer/director speaks at length about New Orleans, music, his visions for the film, his filmmaking process and philosophies, his views on critical analysis, and, most of all, details on the film's creation. Much is revealed in this extensive and engaging retrospective.

Next comes a 2002 video interview with Dutch cinematographer Robby Mόller (22:39). His views on his profession and his experiences on Down by Law are complemented by production stills, documents, and visuals from the film.

In this press conference at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival, Jim Jarmusch, John Lurie, and Roberto Benigni answer questions. At Cannes 1986, John Lurie is interviewed for French television, a video he critically reflects upon from 2002.

Two items originate from the 1986 Cannes Film Festival.

A complete press conference (41:45) has Jarmusch, producer Otto Grokenberger, and actors John Lurie, Roberto Benigni, and Nicoletta Braschi answering international journalists' questions about the film. Though color drops out for a stretch, this is one of the more interesting bonus features I've encountered. The director is coy and pretentious, getting uncomfortable about a number of questions (but responding politely to the most insulting last one). Meanwhile, Benigni keeps the crowd laughing in multiple languages.

From the same event, John Lurie alone gets interviewed (11:36) for French television. He talks about working with Jarmusch, Down by Law, and his acting, music, and filmmaking careers. This personable piece can also be enjoyed with an amusing 2002 audio commentary by Laurie, which is quite critical of his younger self. Alas, his closing remark about criticizing his commentary on this piece goes unrealized, despite this edition's perfect opportunity to realize that.

In his would-be first film credit, Pruitt Taylor Vince confronts Jack (John Lurie) in this deleted scene. Tom Waits' deck dancing, unintended for public consumption, becomes the heart of his Jarmusch-directed music video for his Cole Porter charity cover "It's All Right With Me."

Sixteen outtakes (24:11), as in deleted scenes, are offered. These include some interesting moments, though only an alternate ending would have greatly changed the film's effect.

The offbeat music video for Tom Waits' 1990 howly rendition of Cole Porter's "It's All Right With Me" (4:41), directed by Jim Jarmusch, is presented. Offered alongside the black and white deck dancing video is an audio interview (2:13) by Jarmusch on it and the AIDS charity album for which the song was recorded.

The 2002 audio "Q & A with Jim" (24:48) has the director answer a variety questions from the general public. Pertaining both to Down by Law and his career at large, the queries are of greater human interest than what interviews usually ask (we get back-to-back questions on Jarmusch's white hair), and the piece benefits from that.

Three phone calls from 2002 reunite aurally Jarmusch and his three Down by Law leads: Tom Waits (28:45), Roberto Benigni (12:30), and John Lurie (24:20). Low-tech, casual, warm and vivid, these conversations are like mini-commentaries, only better. Benigni, bubbly even late at night, is especially fun, though each call has its value.

First assistant cameraman Jack Anderson notes the camera settings for this balcony shot setup on back of his Polaroid reference photo. Paul Ferrera's location production stills show us the colors that the film does not.

There are three photo galleries. The first holds first assistant cameraman Jack Anderson's black & white Polaroid test reference photos for setups with shot information on back appearing by their side. It has ten images plus a two-page 2002 introductory note. The other two galleries make up a Location Stills section,

with photos shot by both key grip Paul Ferrera (around 55 color stills) and Anderson (an additional ten aged color shots).

The original theatrical trailer (2:26) shows us how far Criterion's restoration work goes and also how the film was advertised with nearly no dialogue.

The final few extras appear in the Setup submenu. First up and a rarity for Criterion is a French-dubbed track, presented in Dolby Digital 1.0. Related to that is "Jarmusch on Dubbing" (2:23), a short audio clip set to a still photo in which the writer/director explains his aversion to dubbing and the reason why he made an exception for this French version (because Benigni dubbed himself).

Another alternate soundtrack is found in an isolated music track, which plays Tom Waits' two songs and John Lurie's instrumental compositions without those actors and their cast mates' dialogue and sound effects getting in the way. Though studios rarely offer this option nowadays, I always welcome the inclusion of isolated score tracks, even one as sparse as this.

The animated menu plays a few clips from the film, initially with music but later silently. As always, Criterion displays expert BD authoring, supporting both bookmarks and resuming playback of any feature.

The tangible final extra awaits you inside the clear keepcase. It is an 8-page companion booklet supplying the usual transfer information and film and disc credits. The main attraction, however, is "Chemistry Set", a short 3½-page large print 2002 essay by Luc Sante, which analyzes the three lead characters and reads into the film as a reflection of its maker's leanings.

Escaped from jail, Zack (Tom Waits), Jack (John Lurie), and Roberto (Roberto Benigni) make use of a vacant canoe to find safety.


The offbeat, unorthodox Down by Law didn't do all that much for me, but Criterion has treated this early Jim Jarmusch drama to a first-rate Blu-ray, delivering a fantastic feature presentation and an abundance of worthwhile (albeit, primarily audio) bonus features, all recycled from the DVD. For fans of the film, this disc warrants a no-brainer recommendation. Anyone else drawn to American art house fare far from the mainstream probably should be intrigued enough to check out this and/or Jarmusch's other obscure but esteemed works.

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Related Reviews:
Written and Directed by Jim Jarmusch: Dead Man
1980s on Blu-ray: The Color of Money • Blood Simple. • Platoon • New York Stories • My Life as a Dog • Top Gun • Scrooged
New to Blu-ray: Dirty Pretty Things • The 39 Steps • Casa De Mi Padre • Ransom • Barbarella
Featuring Tom Waits: Bram Stoker's Dracula | Featuring John Lurie: The Last Temptation of Christ
Ellen Barkin: Ocean's Thirteen • Operation: Endgame • Brooklyn's Finest • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
New Orleans: The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans • Seeking Justice • Welcome to the Rileys
Pimps: Taxi Driver • Fernando Di Leo Crime Collection | Prison: The Experiment • The Wendell Baker Story • The Counterfeiters • Stone

Down by Law Songs List: Tom Waits - "Jockey Full of Bourbon", Irma Thomas - "It's Raining", Tom Waits - "Tango Till They're Sore"

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Reviewed July 18, 2012.

Text copyright 2012 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1986 Island Pictures, Black Snake Inc., and Grokenberger Film Productions, and 2002-2012 The Criterion Collection.
Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.