Down by Law Review
New Orleans. Zack (Tom Waits) is an unemployed DJ thrown out by his girlfriend, who takes on an assignment to drive a car from one end of town to another – not knowing that there’s a corpse in the boot. Jack (John Lurie) is a small-time pimp who finds himself set up on statutory rape charges. The two men find themselves in the same jail cell, along with Italian tourist Bob (Roberto Benigni).
With its opening travelling shots of New Orleans, Down by Law announces itself as a big leap forward from his previous feature Stranger than Paradise. An increased, if still low, budget shows in the lustre of Robby Müller’s black and white photography.. Stranger than Paradise (his second feature, after the 16mm colour Permanent Vacation) had won him the Camera d’Or for Best First Feature at the 1984 Cannes Festival, so you can understand the confidence that’s visible in Jarmusch’s work here.
That said, there are similarities too. Stranger than Paradise was made up of three named sections of roughly equal length, the first of them previously made as a separate short. Although Down by Law is not explicitly subdivided, it still follows the same structure: a third in New Orleans, a third in the jail cell and a third in the bayous after the three men escape. Also carried over is the same deadpan humour, the ear for language confusions (Hungarian-English in the first film, Benigni’s mishmash of Italian and English here). There’s also the same measured pace and low-key approach to plot that has marked all of Jarmusch’s work, and which will likely make it an acquired taste. Jarmusch is much less interested in what happens but in watching the interplay of characters as things happen, often played out in long sequence shots. What would have been a major part of another film, the prison escape, is disposed of in two brief shots. There’s a quote on the back of the box of Night on Earth: “The beauty in life is in small details not big events.” Jarmusch is in style and sensibility far more “European” than “American”, and it’s not surprising that much of his funding has come from Europe (and Japan). In fact, this is his only film with American money in it.
This was Tom Waits’s biggest acting role for Jarmusch, though he has contributed to later films of his. John Lurie had played the leading role in Stranger than Paradise and had appeared in Permanent Vacation: he wouldn’t appear again, but wrote the music for Jarmusch’s next feature Mystery Train. Both men provide the music for Down by Law, Waits singing songs from his Rain Dogs over both sets of credits, Lurie providing the lounge-jazz score. But the real star of this film is Roberto Benigni. He was a huge star in his native Italy, but this was his first English-language role. The persona which could seem irksome eleven years or so later, in the wake of his Oscar win for Life is Beautiful, seems entirely fresh here. Apart from a brief appearance early on, Benigni doesn’t appear until roughly halfway through the film, and you can sense the energy level go up as he does. Nicoletta Braschi is his wife in real life, so it’s no surprise that the chemistry between their characters seems entirely genuine. Ellen Barkin makes the most of a one-scene role as Waits’s girlfriend, and in the supporting cast you’ll find Jarmusch’s regular supporting player, the late Rockets Redglare.
As with most of Jarmusch’s work, Down by Law won’t be for everyone. Those unsympathetic to his style and methods may find it slow and inconsequential. But if you are attuned to his wavelength, then it’s a treat.
Second Sight’s all-regions release of Down by Law is not new (originally released in 2001), but has been repackaged as part of a two-film box set with Night on Earth to tie in with the UK release of Jarmusch’s new film Broken Flowers. Affiliate links to the left refer to the box set.
The inevitable comparison is going to be with the Criterion release of Down by Law, which has the trademark shedload of extras. The Second Sight disc has no extras at all. For Jarmusch aficionados there’s clearly no contest, but for the unconverted or for anyone with no interest in extras, then the Second Sight is an acceptable and certainly cheaper alternative.
The film is transferred to DVD anamorphically in a ratio of 1.78:1. I would suspect that 1.85:1 is the cinema ratio, but as Jarmusch authorised 1.78:1 for the Criterion DVD then no-one should mind that the matte has been opened up a little: Jarmusch’s compositions tend to be looser, especially given his penchant for longer takes. Given the black and white origins (and it’s real black and white, by the way, not filmed on colour stock), it’s not surprising that there’s a fair amount of grain in the image, particularly in darker scenes. Longer shots do look a little soft. But this is certainly not a bad transfer, even if I suspect that the Criterion (which I don’t have to hand) would beat it.
The soundtrack is the original mono. The low budget does show in places, with a slight hollowness to the sound perhaps due to direct recording. It’s not distracting though, and the all-important dialogue is quite clear. Lurie’s score and Waits’s songs sound fine too. There are twenty chapter stops. No subtitles, which is a bad move.
Jarmusch fans will probably already have this film, either this disc bought four years ago or the Criterion. If for some reason it’s passed you by, then this is worth considering, though a RRP of £24.99 for two bare-bones discs is a little steep: buy it cheaper online. That said, if this and Night on Earth create more Jarmusch fans, then I certainly won’t be complaining.
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