Down by Law
Director Jim Jarmusch followed up his brilliant breakout film Stranger Than Paradise with another, equally beloved portrait of loners and misfits in the American landscape. When fate brings together three hapless men—an unemployed disc jockey (Tom Waits), a small-time pimp (John Lurie), and a strong-willed Italian tourist (Roberto Benigni)—in a Louisiana prison, a singular adventure ensues. Described by Jarmusch as a “neo-Beat noir comedy,” Down by Law is part nightmare and part fairy tale, featuring sterling performances and crisp black-and-white cinematography by the esteemed Robby Müller.
Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law gets a Blu-ray upgrade from Criterion, who yet again present the film in the director’s preferred aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The transfer is presented in 1080p/24hz on a dual-layer disc.
Upon first popping the disc in I was expecting to find Criterion simply reused the same high-definition transfer used for their 2002 DVD edition. Though that transfer looked fine enough on DVD I was expecting to be greeted by a high-def presentation of it that hasn’t held up over the years, like The Last Temptation of Christ and a couple of other upgrades. Imagine my shock when the first few frames pop up and I’m greeted by an image that’s near immaculate! Yes, it looks as though the film has received yet another high-def restoration, this time from the original negative—according to the notes in the booklet—and not the fine-grain interpositive like the DVD’s transfer.
Robby Müller’s black-and-white photography for the film has never looked better on home video. Gray levels are discernible and clean, black levels are pure but not crushing, still presenting details in darker areas, and the whites never bloom. Sharpness and detail are perfect, with finer details clearly rendered, from hairs on the unshaven faces of the three primary protagonists to the various types of vegetation in the swamps. Film grain is fine but visible and cleanly rendered most of the time: my one complaint about the transfer is that there are a few moments where it comes off pixilated. Otherwise I didn’t notice any glaring digital issues and, shockingly, I don’t recall seeing a single blemish, which the DVD’s presentation still had its fair share of.
In all this was a pleasant surprise, and a big one at that. This is a beautiful looking black and white transfer.
The film’s lossless linear PCM 1.0 mono track is also surprisingly strong. Heavy on dialogue, it’s clear and articulate for the most part despite some moments where it’s a little muffled, but I feel it has more to do with shooting conditions and nothing to do with the actual transfer to disc. Music, like Tom Waits’ “A Jockey Full of Bourbon” that plays over the opening, is fairly robust with some great depth. With no distortion or damage it’s a superb mono presentation.
An optional French track is also included for the curious, presenting Roberto Benigini dubbing his own dialogue. The track is high-pitched and a bit rough, but easy enough to listen to. Jarmusch comments on dubbing in the supplements.
Though other aspects of this release received upgrades the supplements haven’t. Thankfully everything has been carried over from Criterion’s excellent 2002 2-disc DVD release.
First the disc comes with a couple of alternate audio tracks, starting with an isolated score, which is simply a mono track presenting the film’s music and score with no dialogue or sound effects. Sound quality sounds to be the same as what we get in the main English track. The release also includes an alternate French dub, which presents Roberto Benigni dubbing his own dialogue. A short 2-and-a-half minute audio piece presents Jarmusch on Dubbing, where the director talks about his resistance to it and then gets into some small details about the French dub for the film. He also talks about Fellini (who had seen Down by Law) and what he told Jarmusch about dubbing and its many advantages (Fellini would dub over his actors during post-production.) Jarmusch is amazed by this but still has no interest in it. On an amusing note he concludes this audio piece giving his own impersonation of “martial arts film” dubbing.
Probably the most disappointing aspect with the release is that the supplements are mostly audio-only features and none of them are an audio commentary: Jarmusch mentions multiple times throughout the features that he hates revisiting his films so has no desire to watch Down by Law again, which I assume is why he has never done a commentary. But Jarmusch does provide an audio recollection under Thoughts and Reflections. Running 73-minutes it begins with Jarmusch praising the new digital restoration (again, referring to the DVD’s original transfer) and then moving on to his memories about how the film came together. Interestingly he constructed it out of his desire to make a movie with John Lurie and Tom Waits, who he had just met, and was intrigued by the notion of doing a film along the lines of The Defiant Ones, with two people who couldn’t stand each other on the run from the law. It was after he met Benigni at a film festival while the two were acting on a jury that he came up with his character for the film. From here he talks about getting the money, shooting on location, talks about the cast and crew, working with director of photography Robert Müller, and recalls the many "Roberto” moments that occurred on set, which included Lurie telling Benigni, whose English left a lot to be desired, the wrong words or phrases for certain things. Playing over a photo of the director from 1986 it’s a little stale, and I’m guessing Jarmusch doesn’t like the idea of video interviews, yet it still manages to be an incredibly engaging and even funny piece.
Next Criterion interviews cinematographer Robby Müller. The 23-minute piece presents a very laid back Müller (rolling his own cigarettes) talking about how he came to work on the film, the look he was going for (Jarmusch explained to him the film was a “fairy tale”) and what it was like working with Jarmusch. From here he gets into the technical details of the shoot, covering the equipment and film stock, and how he was able to capture the look. He also explains how black and white probably helped the film, with colour photos of certain shots provided to give examples. With some raw footage thrown in for good measure it’s a fascinating interview offering the only technical perspective to the film.
Criterion next provides a small section devoted to the Cannes Film Festival, where the film debuted. First is the 42-minute Press Conference shot on video and in rough shape, going to black and white for a good chunk of it. It also appears to be provided in its entirety. Jarmusch, Benigni, Lurie, Braschi, and producer Otto Grokenberger are there and all answer a series of questions ranging from Jarmusch’s possible influences to Benigni’s trip to America. It can unfortunately be a bit painful, though, as Jarmusch comes off as, I’m almost sorry to say, a prick. Jarmusch acknowledges this in an interview with John Lurie found elsewhere on this disc, where he mentions the press conference, thinking he was possibly just nervous and not sure what to do.
Also included in this section is probably one of the funniest features to be found here, an interview with John Lurie filmed at Cannes. Lurie is obviously under the influence of something and the 12-minute interview is incredibly painful while Lurie meanders from topic to topic and never finishing a single thought. What makes this feature gold, though, is the included audio commentary for this feature by Lurie, who is obviously astounded and embarrassed by the feature. With great humour he talks about what was happening, how out of his element he was, and suggests he may have been getting a bit of an ego at the time (he was in this and Paris, Texas at the time, both of which appeared at Cannes.) Lurie also shares some stories from the festival, most of which aren’t at all flattering, like one where, after snorting what he thought was heroin, fell asleep on Roger Ebert’s shoulder. It’s sometimes painful but it’s a great addition.
16 outtakes running 24-minutes are then included. These are actually rather good and I’m sure they were painful for Jarmusch to cut, but they would have easily hurt the flow of the film. There’s a great extension to the opening with Lurie’s pimp walking down the street where he runs into a john, played by a young, almost unrecognizable Pruitt Taylor Vince. We then get more material from the jail, including a cut subplot involving a beating Lurie’s character takes. And on top of many more extensions to scenes in the swamp we get a darker alternate ending.
A music video directed by Jarmusch of Tom Waits performing “It’s All Right With Me” is interestingly enough included. The video was made for an AIDs benefit and was initially meant to be a bigger affair. Jarmusch and Waits filmed rough footage to get an idea of what the video would be but after Waits was unable to finish the project in time Jarmusch simply edit together what rough footage he had taken. It’s an interesting video, very bizarre, but it oddly works. Jarmusch also provides an audio note about the video.
Criterion then provides what would become the first of many Q&As with Jarmusch, which Criterion would also do with their releases for Mystery Train and Night on Earth. Criterion would ask fans to send in questions for the director and then record him answering a selection of them. Here we get about 17 or so, spread over 16-chapters (there’s two-for involving his hair.) The questions range from the personal (how does Jarmusch pronounce his last name, when did his hair turn white, favourite novels, etc.) and questions related to the production (working with Waits, was the actor drunk, etc.) Jarmusch is good humoured, even for some of the more absurd questions and it’s a great idea that I’m happy Criterion has carried over to other titles. The feature runs about 25-minutes.
Next Jarmusch performs a few phone calls, calling up the three primary members of his cast including Tom Waits, Roberto Benigni, and John Lurie. On each call Jarmusch and the cast member recall the shoot and share their fondest memories. Waits and the director talk about his character and how he was changed from a musician to a DJ as well as touch on films that they watched that influenced the film in one way or another. Waits also recalls the experience on his first film and the two bring up one of the most bizarre things to happen while filming: running into Paul Reubens in the middle of nowhere in Louisiana. Benigni’s call, which is the shortest at 12-minutes, presents the actor at his “spazziest” as he quickly recalls his first experience in America and how he learned the English language (with Lurie teaching him incorrect words for certain things.) Benigni also tells some of the jokes he learned, which played with the English language. He also talks about the revolting food on set. Lurie’s interview, at 24-minutes, may be my favourite (though they’re all good) as the two talk about the filming and their time at Cannes, with Lurie getting into his interview that is included on here, and Jarmusch talking about the press conference. Lurie also talks about his performance and the perception he built in his head that the scenes cut from the film contained the best acting he had ever done, and dreads seeing the outtakes that would be included on this release. All three are great, charming reflections worth listening to.
Criterion then includes two galleries. The first presents a series of production polaroids taken by assistant cameraman Jack Anderson, which detailed the technical aspects of the shoot. After a brief text intro by Anderson we get about 10 photos, with close-ups on the technical notes beside them. We then get two sets of location stills, one by Paul Ferrera and the other by Anderson. Ferrera’s gallery has more with about 57 or so, covering the scene with Barkin, scenes from the swamp, and then the end. Anderson’s gallery has 10 photos taken during the shoot in the swamp.
The disc then closes with the film’s theatrical trailer, which looks to come from a 16mm source.
The insert then includes the same essay by Luc Sante that was included with the DVD, with a few slight edits, though nothing significant.
In the end there’s a slight disappointment that the supplements are mostly audio but they’re still all rather charming and provide a great reflection on the shoot.
The supplements are the same as the DVD’s with nothing new, but they’re all still entertaining to go through. But the disc is worth picking up or upgrading to simply for the new transfer, which manages to improve greatly over the DVD’s. It comes with a high recommendation.