Down by Law Blu-ray Review

Matt Hough

Senior HTF Member
Apr 24, 2006
Charlotte, NC
Real Name
Matt Hough
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Jim Jarmusch’s minimalist storytelling and strong emphasis on character comes to the fore in his second feature film Down by Law. Shot in exquisite black and white and featuring areas in and around New Orleans which would look quite different now, Down by Law may not be a riveting film, but it’s an enjoyable picaresque with three completely different and unusual rogues.

Down by Law (Blu-ray)
Directed by Jim Jarmusch

Studio: Criterion
Year: 1986
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1   1080p   AVC codec
Running Time: 107 minutes
Rating: NR
Audio: PCM 1.0 English; Dolby Digital 1.0 French
Subtitles:  SDH

Region: A
MSRP: $ 39.95

Release Date: July 17, 2012

Review Date: July 12, 2012

The Film


Pimp Jack (John Lurie) and ex-disc jockey Zack (Tom Waits) are each thrown into Orleans Parish Prison on trumped up charges: Jack for attempting to seduce an underaged girl and Zack for attempting to dump a dead body found in the trunk of a car he's driving. The two men share the jail cell uncomfortably, but things get brighter when Italian Roberto (Roberto Benigni) joins them having caused the death of a man by throwing a billiard ball into the middle of his skull. “Bob” (as he prefers to be called) only speaks broken English, but his eternal optimism is rather contagious, and it’s he who finds an escape route for them out of the prison. Once into the Louisiana swamps, however, the trio gets turned around and is unsure how to proceed since each one has his own plans and want to head in different directions.

Jim Jarmusch’s script emphasizes the ebullient effect Bob’s countenance has on the two surly Americans, and their animosities seem to dissipate whenever he’s around. He allows Benigni to have his head, especially in an extended monologue as he cooks a rabbit he’s caught over an open flame, but why the character is speaking English when the two Americans have left him seems an odd directorial choice. Jarmusch and his superb cameraman Robby Müller capture breathtaking views of New Orleans in several panning shots early on and later of the Louisiana swamplands where a cyprus grove is just hypnotic to look at as the men walk through it ,and a field of weeds almost appears as wheat waving in the sun in a later shot. There is also a sequence where the three escape through the New Orleans sewer system that will bring to mind the glistening water shadows from the sewer sequence of The Third Man. The adventures the three men share aren’t especially thrilling or unusual (though the moment with the sinking boat is undeniably funny), but any movie that makes a reference to Robert Frost only to have it pay off in the movie’s conclusion can’t be anything but praiseworthy.

Roberto Benigni walks away with the show in his first film for Jarmusch though the director mostly keeps a tight enough reign on him that his usual overboard antics don’t surface here except in tiny bits and pieces. The character of his two other protagonists is firmly established in the movie’s prologue where each of the women who are the current paramours of the men have memorable single scenes telling each of them off in their own inimitable styles (kudos to Ellen Barkin and Bille Neal who nail their characters, especially Neal who delivers her monologue in the nude with no self-consciousness before the camera whatsoever). Tom Waits and John Lurie each have moments in the spotlight in which they shine; Waits’ Zach does a couple of D. J. monologues in his “radio voice” which are very entertaining. Nicoletta Braschi comes into the film during its final quarter hour and has lovely, natural interactions with all three of these very different men.

Video Quality


The film has been framed in director Jim Jarmusch’s preferred aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and is presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. What a stunning, gorgeous, and perfect black and white picture this is! Unlike the graininess present in the cinematography of his first feature Stranger Than Paradise, the imagery here is sparklingly crisp and razor sharp. The grayscale balances rich deep blacks with pure whites with never any problems with blooming or crushing of details. There are no age-related artifacts to spoil the film’s pristine look. The film has been divided into 26 chapters.

Audio Quality


The PCM 1.0 (1.1 Mbps) sound mix has more than decent fidelity to capture the songs by Tom Waits and the music of John Lurie. Though some of the dialogue may be hard to catch due to the two Americans’ tendency to mumble on occasion, that isn’t necessarily the fault of the transfer. Other sound effects are fairly minimal but are natural sounding in context. There is also a French dubbed soundtrack presented in Dolby Digital 1.0.

Special Features


Director Jim Jarmusch comments on the French dub track in the audio set-up section of the disc. This runs 2 ¼ minutes.

Director Jim Jarmusch offers thoughts and reflections on the movie (which is tantamount to an audio commentary) in an audio-only bonus feature running 73 ¼ minutes. He comments on his love of music, his impressions of New Orleans, the meaning of the film’s title, his friendships with the three main actors, his style of working with a finished script but unplanned shots, his memories of particular moments with the various actors on the shoot, and his great esteem for cinematographer Robby Müller.

All of the video features on the disc are presented in 1080i.

An interview with cinematographer Robby Müller lasts 22 ¾ minutes. He discusses his own work process and his films with the director and specific techniques employed in the making of this movie.

The press conference at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival lasts 41 ¾ minutes with all major participants present except Tom Waits.

A John Lurie interview filmed at Cannes in 1986 runs 11 ¾ minutes. More interesting is Lurie’s running commentary commenting on himself sixteen years later which may also be turned on at any time.

There are sixteen outtakes which can be watched individually or in one 24 ¼-minute grouping.

“It’s All Right With Me” is a compiled music video featuring Tom Waits singing the Cole Porter song which Jarmusch shot on video in 1989 for use at an AIDS benefit. It runs 4 ¾ minutes. Jarmusch also has a 2 ¼-minute audio piece describing the experience.

An audio-only question and answer session with Jim Jarmusch featuring questions sent in to the director about the film and about himself runs 24 ¾ minutes.

Three personal phone calls to the three main stars of the movie were recorded in 2002. Jarmusch’s conversation with Tom Waits lasts 28 ¾ minutes, Roberto Benigni lasts 12 ½ minutes, and John Lurie lasts 24 ¼ minutes.

Jack Anderson Polaroid photos of behind the scenes activity can be thumbed through. There are also color stills sections shot by Paul Ferrea and Jack Anderson.

The film’s theatrical trailer runs 2 ½ minutes, but its grainy, blooming look is nothing like the finished product on display on the disc.

The enclosed pamphlet contains cast and crew lists, some character stills, and a celebratory essay on the movie by critic Luc Sante.

The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc and the title of the chapter you’re now in. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.

In Conclusion

4/5 (not an average)

Down by Law isn’t nearly as quirky as Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise or Mystery Train, but it’s an enjoyable comic road picture with a trio of unusual characters that are fun to get to know. With reference picture and very good sound and with the superb bonus material ported over from the 2002 DVD release of the movie, this Blu-ray release comes with a firm recommendation.

Matt Hough

Charlotte, NC


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