Down by Law

Director Jim Jarmusch’s classic 1986 “neo-beat-noir-comedy” gets a heavy makeover this month with the release of this two-disc DVD set loaded with extras compliments of the director in conjunction with The Criterion Collection (director-approved classics series).

The beautifully shot black-and-white film had a relatively unknown cast of non-actors at the time—Lounge Lizards saxophonist John Lurie as a small-time pimp, popular musician Tom Waits as an unemployed disc jockey, and (in his U.S. debut) Italian comedian Roberto Benigni as a confused tourist—characters who display some magical chemistry once they are thrown together in a prison cell in New Orleans (a city whose exotic atmosphere permeates the film).

It’s a funny script that uses a stereotypical plot of prison escape to examine the relationship between these disparate, down-on-their-luck characters; all the performances are wonderfully eccentric. The movie also has a remarkably self-contained, slow-moving quality about it—one that helped earn Jarmusch his reputation as one of America’s most revered indie directors.

Besides the definitive digital transfer of the film—disc two features some interesting extras, including several interviews with Jarmusch and director of photography Robby Müller, the 1986 Cannes press conference, close to a dozen deleted scenes that fans will want to see, an artsy music video by Jarmusch of Waits performing Cole Porter’s “It’s All Right With Me,” fan Q&As, an isolated music track, production Polaroids/location stills, a French dub track, and my favorite: Jarmusch’s recordings of three lengthy phone calls he made in July 2002 to the film’s stars to discuss their memories of the work. Waits and Lurie are interesting and quirky, but the overseas call to the excitable Benigni (who still speaks Italian-heavy English) is one of the funniest phone conversations I’ve ever heard. Jarmusch couldn’t have scripted anything better.

Overall, this is the type of deluxe DVD sandwich recommended for big fans of the film and director.