September 20, 1986, (limited) release date
Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Screenplay by Jim Jarmusch
Music by John Lurie and Tom Waits
Edited by Melody London
Cinematography by Robby Müller
Tom Waits as Zack
Roberto Benigni as Roberto
Nicoletta Braschi as Nicoletta
Ellen Barkin as Laurette
Billie Neal as Bobbie
Rockets Redglare as Gig
Vernel Bagneris as Preston
Timothea as Julie
L.C. Drane as L.C.
Joy N. Houck, Jr., as Detective Mandino
Carrie Lindsoe as young girl
Ralph Joseph as a detective
Richard Boes as a detective
Dave Petitjean as Cajun detective
Produced by PolyGram Pictures, Island Pictures, Black Snake
Distributed by Universal Pictures from 2011 to the present
The blurb on the back of the DVD from the Criterion Collection states, in part, “Described by director Jim Jarmusch as a ‘neo-beat-noir-comedy,’ Down by Law is part nightmare and part fairy tale . . . .” The film does start out a bit nightmarish, but by the end, I was completely charmed by the story in general and Roberto in particular.
Can Down by Law be called a neo-noir? I think I could be convinced. The fact that it’s shot in black and white helps, but that’s not enough. It’s a great film and well worth seeing. The writing, the characters, the plot, the dialogue, the setting—all are fantastic. I had no idea where the plot was heading, and I loved the surprises along the way. It’s almost impossible to characterize Down by Law, which I think is really one of its many strengths.
The music score is also perfect for this film: discordant jazz and blues that, to me, represents the offbeat plot and characters. The music was written by John Lurie, who plays Jack. The songs “Jockey Full of Bourbon” and “Tango Till They’re Sore” are from Tom Waits’s Rain Dogs album; Waits plays Zack. The music score—the discordant jazz—is another reason to call this film neo-noir.
(This blog post about Down by Law contains spoilers.)
Roberto’s difficulty with the English language is the basis for most of the humor in this “neo-beat-noir-comedy.” For example, there’s a very funny scene in the prison cell when Roberto takes out his self-styled notepad-slash-dictionary of English phrases and points out that he knows the word scream in English: “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream.” He starts chanting the sentence, and Jack and Zack join him. Before long, all the inmates start chanting the same line over and over again, which finally brings in the prison guards to restore quiet.
Roberto and Zack actually meet on the street before their incarceration, and the scene between them is wonderful. Roberto is carrying his notepad, and he consults it so he can converse with Zack. Again, language plays a central role. They part ways because Zack is not very friendly to Roberto, but Zack cannot get one of Roberto’s phrases out of his head: It becomes a lyric he incorporates into a song. Their exchange is amusing, and I thought the scene was also an interesting insight into the creative process: how Zack borrows Roberto’s phrasing and uses it to his songwriting advantage.
After Roberto, Jack, and Zack escape from the Orleans Parish Prison, Roberto looks for food in Luigi’s Tin Top and meets Nicoletta. He and Nicoletta fall in love instantly, and Roberto forgets that his two friends Jack and Zack are waiting outside to make sure that the coast is clear (that is, no cops around). The three men have seen nothing but cypress trees and swamp water for days, but they’re worried cops are lurking in this eatery that’s propped by the side of a dirt road.
Roberto loses his homemade notepad of English phrases during the escape from prison, but it doesn’t seem like he’ll need it once he meets Nicoletta. Both of them speak Italian and broken English, and Roberto has no plans to leave Nicoletta alone in Luigi’s Tin Top. I read online that the actors Roberto Benigni and Nicoletta Braschi fell in love off the set, too.