Down by Law (1986)

As the busiest UK script consultant and script writer for hire in the business, I’m a big fan of Jim Jarmusch.  I think ‘Mystery Train’ is one of my favourite films.  ‘Night on Earth’ is fabulous too. Wonderful cinema.

I also like ‘Ghost Dog Way of the Samurai’, ‘Broken Flowers’ has its moments too.  ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’ was okay. I wasn’t too keen at all on ‘The Dead Don’t Die’ and every now and then the studied coolness, or blank comedy of his films falls flat.

I have a theory that Jim was at his best early on, after his debut, he made three films  – Down by Law, ‘Mystery Train’ and ‘Night on Earth’.  For me, these are THE Jim Jarmusch films, and some of the stuff that comes after this, (bar maybe Ghost Dog) feels as if he’s striving for another style that he hasn’t quite hit on.  But why would he need another style? Another way of telling stories?

‘Ghost Dog’ is the exception, I think, because he seems to be melding his style with something  like Jean Pierre Melville, and I think that worked, and was a logical extension.  The film finally, doesn’t quite succeed, but it was a useful avenue to go down, and a way to move forward stylistically. But, Jim, is funny, and I think he’s move towards comedy feels more natural?  But is it?

‘Down by Law’ is funny at times, but it also has the studied coolness.  But let’s be honest, it’s film that stars John Lurie and Tom Waits – THE TOM WAITS and THE JOHN LURIE. So the film is going to have some studied moody cool about it, with two hip cat musicians in the lead roles, alongside Italian comedian Roberto Benigni  (he provides the funny).

So the film is studied cool, hipster chic (before hipster was chic), it’s a lot of single takes and often looks improvised. Ellen Barkin is possibly the most photogenic actress to ever appear in a modern black and white film – but she’s not in it long, long enough to dump Tom and send him to drink, and then the clink.

Lurie is least likely looking pimp in Memphis and is easily set up by Rockets Redglare, who may well have been just doing his day job rather than acting in the film. Lurie winds up in the clink too with Waits, and the two are joined by Benigni in the cell. Benigni can barely speak a word of English but manages to get the three to escape out of the prison and into a swamp, in a sinking boat.

Of course, the music is cool as fuck – but this is a film photographed by the world greatest cameraman at the time – step forward the Edward Hooper of Germany –  (the late great) Robby Muller.  This film looks sumptuous, and the long one shot takes don’t matter, ‘cos Robbie makes everything look stunning.  I can’t tell you how good this films looks. In black and white, in bad neighbourhoods, in the swamp and in the woods, this is some of the best cinematography ever in movies – and the style suits the film, and the look suits the story. It’s all tailored together in a way some of Jim’s later films are not, and without a cameraman like Muller, I think Jim suffers, feels unsure.  Who wouldn’t?

So, Down by Law is the perfect embodiement of Jim’s style, and other stuff since doesn’t have it down, in the way that this film does. It’s perfect, in that very narrow furrow that Jarmusch was pushing – ‘Mystery Train’ is too. Bull’s-eye twice, then where do you go?  Jim’s still trying to work that out.

The trailer is below.   Looks at the lustre, Muller could photograph paint drying.