Down by Law (film)

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Down by Law
Promotional poster
Directed byJim Jarmusch
Written byJim Jarmusch
Produced byAlan Kleinberg
StarringTom Waits
John Lurie
Roberto Benigni
Nicoletta Braschi
Ellen Barkin
CinematographyRobby Müller
Edited byMelody London
Music byJohn Lurie
Black Snake
Distributed byIsland Pictures
Release date
  • September 20, 1986 (1986-09-20) (Limited)
Running time
107 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$1,435,668[1]

Down by Law (Italian: Daunbailò) is a 1986 American black-and-white independent neo-beat noir comedy film.[2] It was written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, and stars 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.

Plot summary[edit]

Three men, previously unknown to each other, are arrested in New Orleans and placed in the same cell. Both Zack (Waits), a disc jockey, and Jack (Lurie), a pimp, have been set up, neither having committed the crime for which they have been arrested. Their cellmate Bob (Benigni, in his first international role[3]), an Italian tourist who understands minimal English, was imprisoned for accidental manslaughter.

Zack and Jack soon come to blows and thereafter avoid speaking to each other. Bob has an irrepressible need for conversation. He hatches a plan to escape, and before long the three are on the run through the swamp surrounding the prison. Hopelessly lost and with a simmering hatred between Jack and Zack almost causing the party to split up, they are brought together by Bob's ability to provide food. The trio eventually chances across a house in the forest, the residence of Nicoletta (Braschi). Bob and Nicoletta instantly fall in love, and Bob decides to stay with her in the forest. Zack and Jack go their separate ways—an unspoken, begrudging friendship hanging between them as they part.



The cinematography is by Robby Müller, who subsequently worked with Jarmusch on Mystery Train (1989), Dead Man (1995), and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999). The film stars musician Tom Waits, along with Jarmusch regulars John Lurie and Roberto Benigni.[citation needed]

Benigni and Nicoletta Braschi, whose characters fall in love in the movie, later got married in real life.[citation needed]

Release and reviews[edit]

Down by Law was entered into the 1986 Cannes Film Festival.[4] Its title in Italian was the phonetic spelling, Daunbailò.[5] It was dedicated to Pascale Ogier and Enzo Ungari.[citation needed]

The film has an 88% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 32 reviews, with an average rating of 7.7/10. The website's consensus reads, "Funny, original, and thoroughly cinematic, Down by Law represents writer-director Jim Jarmusch at his most ingratiating and evocative."[6] A reviewer for The New York Times called it a "fable of poetic density", with "extraordinary performances" by the three main actors.[7] Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun-Times gave the film three stars out of a possible four. He said Down By Law was overlong, but with an undercurrent of sly humor that balanced out the grim material; a "true original that kind of grows on you", and "an anthology of pulp images from the world of film noir."[8]


The original soundtrack was written and performed by John Lurie, backed with a small jazz ensemble, released as LP on Crammed Discs (Made to Measure, Vol. 14, 1987)

Additional songs featured
  • "Crying", written by Roy Orbison and Joe Melson, first lines performed by Tom Waits alone in a car as he imagines deejaying, just before he is stopped by police.[9]
  • "Jockey Full of Bourbon", written and performed by Tom Waits (from the album Rain Dogs, 1985), the whole song plays over otherwise soundless tracking shots of New Orleans neighbourhood streets.
  • "It's Raining", produced and allegedly written by Allen Toussaint, performed by Irma Thomas. In the breakfast scene Roberto chooses the song from a juke box and dances with Nicoletta to it.[10]
  • "Tango Till They're Sore", written and performed by Tom Waits (from Rain Dogs), final song.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Down by Law". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 6 November 2014.
  2. ^ Down by Law. The Criterion Channel. Retrieved 25 July 2023.
  3. ^ Suárez, Juan Antonio (2007). Jim Jarmusch. U of Illinois P. p. 48. ISBN 9780252074431.
  4. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Down by Law". Retrieved July 11, 2009.
  5. ^ Jarmusch, Jim (October 28, 2019). "Film card". Torino Film Fest. Retrieved January 18, 2024.
  6. ^ Down by Law at Rotten Tomatoes
  7. ^ Nichols, Peter M.; Scott, A. O. (2004). The New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made. St. Martin's Press. pp. 276–78. ISBN 9780312326111. Retrieved December 21, 2014.
  8. ^ "Down by Law movie review & film summary (1986) | Roger Ebert".
  9. ^ Piazza, Sara (2015). Jim Jarmusch: Music, Words and Noise. UK: Reaktion Books. p. 391. ISBN 9781780234694.
  10. ^ Breakfast scene from Down by Law on YouTube, at 1:20.

External links[edit]