Down by Law
When fate lands 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, their singular adventure begins. Described by director Jim Jarmusch as a "neo-beat-noir-comedy," Down by Law is part nightmare and part fairy tale, featuring fine performances and crisp black-and-white photography by esteemed cinematographer Robby Müller. The Criterion Collection is proud to present Jim Jarmusch's Down by Law.
Criterion’s original 2-disc DVD release of Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law presents the film on the first dual-layer disc in the aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The high-definition digital transfer was taken from the 35mm fine-grain interpositive and it is presented here enhanced for widescreen televisions.
I remember first popping this in way back in the day and just being blown away by the presentation and looking at it again now I’m still quite impressed with it. Impressively the image does retain a fairly filmic look to it despite the shortcomings of the format and the level of detail can be very impressive. Contrast and gray scale are on point and the black levels are incredibly strong. Though there is some compression present (again, it’s standard definition) it is nicely managed and upscaled this still looks half decent.
The restoration has cleaned up a lot as well, with only a few minor marks popping up here and there, primarily specs of debris. I wasn’t expecting much when this first came out considering the very independent nature of the film but it has held up well over the years and the restoration efforts have been incredibly thorough.
The Blu-ray released in 2012 is substantially better: sourced from the original negative the image there offers significantly more detail, finer tonal shifts and further restoration work. I would direct everyone to that edition over this one in a heartbeat. But for those still DVD-only this one still looks incredible all these years later.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track also holds up well. Though focused to the center channel only I still found this pretty dynamic, at least in regards to music, and voices still have some depth and fidelity. I also didn’t find it too bad in regards to quality, with only some minor background noise present here and there.
Criterion gives the film a rather nice special edition, spreading the features over the two discs. The first 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. You’ll also find 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.
Though the features are all good the more 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. It’s presented over a chapter index.
The first disc then closes with the film’s theatrical trailer.
The second single-layer disc presents the remaining features. First is an interview with 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.
Finally, the release also includes an insert featuring an essay by Luc Sante
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 set still holds up well all these years later. While I would direct all of those that are Blu-ray enabled to the Blu-ray edition this one still offers a rather impressive standard-definition presentation and a fantastic set of features.