Taglines: It’s not where you start – It’s where you start again.
DJ Zack and pimp Jack end up in prison for being too laid-back to avoid being framed for crimes they didn’t commit. They end up sharing a cell with eccentric Italian optimist Roberto, whose limited command of the English language is both entertaining and infuriating. More useful to them is the fact that Roberto knows an escape route.
Down by Law is a 1986 black-and-white independent film written and directed by Jim Jarmusch and starring Tom Waits, John Lurie, and Roberto Benigni. The film centers on the arrest, incarceration, and escape from jail of three men. It discards jailbreak film conventions by focusing on the interaction between the convicts rather than on the mechanics of the escape. A key element in the film is Robby Müller’s slow-moving camerawork, which captures the architecture of New Orleans and the Louisiana bayou to which the cellmates escape.
Review for Down by Law
Down by Law, one of the great cult film of the Eighties, is alternately downbeat, witty, bleak and optimistic.
The plot spins around three seemingly expendable misfits – a down-at-heel disc jockey (Tom Waits as Zack), a hustler pimp (John Lurie, who also did the wonderful score, as Jack) and a bemused and cheerful Italian tourist (Roberto Benigni as Bob), all of whom end up sharing a cell.
The setting is Eighties New Orleans and the city has a misanthropic look and atmospheric beauty that is down to the remarkable cinematography of Dutchman Robby Müller. His use of natural light and sumptuous black-and-white tones recalls classic films such as The Asphalt Jungle and The Big Heat.
The plot is more or less incidental to a film that is almost a fairytale. Müller was keen that there were no “camera acrobatics”, which allows a simple story/fable to be well told and for the rich and quirky characters to blossom.
Waits is excellent. He did not want to play a musician and believed the character of a DJ would capture the nomadic charm of a conman character who was on the fringes of showbusiness. He contributed to the soundtrack (two songs from his fine album Rain Dogs) and even sings, in his sweeter pre-Billy Goat Gruff way, a verse of Roy Orbison’s Crying. Much of the dialogue was improvised.
The minor characters are terrific, too – especially Ellen Barkin as the girlfriend who throws Zack’s pointed shoes (they were Waits’s real ones) out of the window; and Nicoletta Braschi, who later became Benigni’s wife, as cafe owner Nicoletta. Also good are the seedy New Orleans characters of con man (Rockets Redglare) and wise-cracking prostitute (Billie Neal).
The prison scenes are full of small and powerful details. Director Jim Jarmusch and the three main actors went to the Orleans Parish Prison as inmates for a day to experience what it was like to be holed up in a small cell. Benigni, almost like a modern-day clown, can’t speak much English but his timing is impeccable and he’s a great physical comedian. There is a wonderful scene where he draws on the wall in chalk the outline of a window. Begnini asks Lurie: “Do you say, in English, ‘I look at the window, or do you say, ‘I look out the window?’” Lurie replies drolly, “In this case, Bob, you’d say “I look at the window.”
There’s also a memorable scene in which the prisoners march and sing the Twenties novelty song I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for Ice Cream. All three have been framed (sort of), all three want to escape.
The trio end up in the swamps of Louisiana bayou country, providing scenes in which you can lose yourself in the slow images and engrossing monologues, the poetry and the people. Down by Law is a delight, right down to the unexpected last scene.
Down by Law (1986)
Directed by: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Tom Waits, John Lurie, Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Ellen Barkin, Billie Neal, Rockets Redglare, Vernel Bagneris
Screenplay by: Jim Jarmusch
Production Design by: Janet Densmore
Cinematography by: Robby Müller
Film Editing by: Melody London
Costume Design by: Carol Wood
Makeup Department: Donita Miller
Music by: John Lurie
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Release Date: September 20, 1986