Jim Jarmusch followed up his critically acclaimed Stranger Than Paradise with Down By Law, a neo-noir set in Louisiana about three men incarcerated together. Like many of the independent films Jarmusch’s work inspired, Down By Law offers limited plot and characterization as it moves along at a meandering pace. While this may be an understandable turn-off for some, the film is worth seeing for cinematographer Robby Muller stunning black and white photography and the English-speaking debut of Roberto Benigni.
Zack (Tom Waits) has just lost another DJ job. His girl Laurette (Ellen Barkin) can’t take it any more and kicks him out. Jack (John Lurie) is a pimp, though not a good one according to a pro, though the audience didn’t need to be told that as he comes off like someone’s idea of pimp. Both men end up sharing a jail cell because each was set up helping out with some nefarious activities. They grow to dislike each other.
One day, Roberto (Roberto Benigni) or Bob as they call him, an Italian tourist with limited English comprehension, joins them and the unexpected charge for this happy-go-lucky fellow is both startling and amusing. The energy of the film picks with Benigni’s presence, whose character is the driving catalyst of the story. After some time together, Bob figures out a way to escape, and the film cuts to the trio on the run with dogs barking after them in the near distance. Zack and Jack continue their squabbling but Bob finds ways to ease the tension between them by finding food and shelter. By the end, Paradise is attained for one while the other two men are content to continue their journey to find it.
The video has been given a 1080p MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer displayed at 1.78:1m and it allows Robby Muller’s work to shine. The liner notes reveal that under the supervision of “director Jim Jarmusch, this new digital transfer was created in 2K resolution on an SCANITY film scanner from the original camera negative. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, and warps were manually removed using MTI’s DRS, while Image Systems’ Phoenix and Pixel Farm’s PFClean were used for small dirt, grain, noise reduction, jitter, and flicker.” The black and white film captures the wonderful architecture of New Orleans, and makes the bayous of the state look as beautiful as the work of Ansel Adams. The blacks are deep and inky, contributing to the great contrast with the varying grays and whites. The image offers great depth and clarity as well as light grain throughout.
The audio is English LPCM 1.0 and “the original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from the original magnetic audio tracks. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation.” The dialogue and Laurie’s score, the latter of which can be heard on an isolated track, can be clearly heard though the dynamic range is limited. The track sounds free from hiss or defect. There is also a French dub with Benigni providing his own even though the director explains why he dislikes dubs on “Jarmusch on Dubbing” (audio, 2 min)
The extras are all from the 2002 DVD release. During “Thoughts and Reflections” (audio, 73 min), Jarmusch basically delivers an interesting commentary track. “Robby Muller Interview” (audio, 23 min) finds the cinematographer talking about working with Jarmusch and their approach to the film’s look.
From the 1986 “Cannes Film Festival” we get great video of the film’s “Press Conference” (1080i, 42 min) with Jarmusch, Lurie, Benigni, executive producer Otto Grokenberger, and actress Nicoletta Braschi. The video quality is poor and the segment reveals that the stupid questions “journalists” ask aren’t isolated to the present. Also from the festival, a French television show recorded a “John Lurie Interview” and in 2002 Lurie recorded a commentary track where he makes fun of his past self.
Apprentice editor Jay Rabinowitz gathered “Outtakes” (1080i, 24 min), which include an alternate ending. Tom Waits recorded Cole Porter’s “It’s All Right With Me” for the 1990 AIDS benefit album Red Hot + Blue. Jim Jarmusch directed the “Video” (1080i, 5 min), which features Waits dancing in someone’s backyard and driving around Los Angeles. Jarmusch offers a brief optional audio commentary about it.
For the DVD, Criterion invited people to participate in a “Q&A with Jim” (audio, 25 min) and got Jaramusch to make “Phone Calls” in which he recorded talking with the main cast: Benigni (13 min), Waits (29 min), and Lurie (25 min). There are also Production Polaroids (HD) taken by first assistant cameraman Jack Anderson, Location Stills (HD) taken by Anderson and key grip Paul Ferrera, the original theatrical trailer (1080i, 3 min) and an illustrated booklet containing the essay “Chemistry Set” by critic Luc Sante.
For those who enjoy black and white photography and independent films from the ’80s, The Criterion Collection’s release of Down By Law on Blu-ray makes a perfect combination.