July 2012

Down by LawA Loveable, Offbeat Film with Heart and Perfect Widescreen Picture Composition

The Criterion Collection 166
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment

Picture Quality

Sound Quality


Down by Law has stood the test of time to become an offbeat masterpiece. Director Jim Jarmusch pulled it off by casting two musicians (John Lurie and Tom Waits) and an Italian comedian then unknown in America (Roberto Benigni), using black-and-white photography by Robby Müller, and location shooting in New Orleans with its surrounding swamps. Though it has a plot, Down by Law is more of a character and mood study than a narrative film.

Three eccentrics, Zack, Jack, and Roberto (Waits, Lurie, and Benigni), end up in a New Orleans jail. After a long period of getting to know each other, they decide to escape together and they take off across the Louisiana swamps, where one of them finds the American Dream. The three are oddballs in spades. Zack is an alcoholic ex-disc jockey who is conned into driving a stolen car across town and parking it in a new location, not knowing there's a dead man in the trunk. Jack is a pimp, but an unusual one who never hits his girls. Roberto is a lost Italian tourist who carries a notebook of American slang phrases in his pocket, and he's prone to using the wrong phrase at the wrong time.

The casting couldn't be better. Musicians Waits and Lurie were well known at the time, but not for their acting abilities. A musician himself, Jarmusch enjoys this type of potentially risky casting. This movie also marked the first American appearance of Roberto Benigni, whose shtick was still fresh and had yet to become a tiresome parody of itself. Taken as a trio, the stars are charismatic and appealing.

Cinematographer Müller films everything with flair and assurance. A lot of movies have used the 1.78:1 aspect ratio, but only a handful seem to have really needed widescreen. In shot after shot, Müller’s work fully justifies that choice. This movie might well serve as a model on scene composition.

Criterion already had a very good DVD of this movie in its catalog, but the Blu-ray improves on it with a virtually pristine black-and-white picture containing great detail and perfect contrast. The mono audio soundtrack is alive and clear with lots of presence, and the music and dialogue are perfectly balanced. About 25 minutes from the end I remembered that the movie isn't in stereo, much less surround, and I didn't miss those elements at all. The extras are carried over from the DVD release, which includes, most importantly, an in-depth interview with Müller. There's also a Jarmusch-directed music video for Tom Waits's cover of Cole Porter's "It's All Right with Me." If anyone gets this, let me know. It left me scratching my head.

Down by Law is off the beaten track, but just about anyone can enjoy it. Its fugitive-escape narrative is tempered at heart with a kind humor that's more gray than black. Everyone in the technical departments, both the original artists and the transfer team, proves that an indie film doesn't have to look and sound bad to be successful. Rent first, but I have a feeling you'll want to buy it soon after, as Down by Law holds up well to repeated viewing.

Be sure to watch for: Chapter 4 finds Zack on a trash-littered street corner with a poster on the right and the connecting street on the left. Look at the depth of field and the composition, which make the best possible use of the widescreen aspect ratio. The shadow composition and detail are also impressive.

. . . Rad Bennett