In New Orleans, a disc jockey has just been sacked thanks to his bad behaviour, and not for the first time, Zack (Tom Waits) has a habit of leaving his jobs behind with burned bridges in his wake. His girlfriend Laurette (Ellen Barkin) is furious with him, and that night kicks off a row by throwing many of his belongings out of the window of their apartment and into the street below, as all the while Zack sits on the bed and lets her get it out of her system. That is until she picks up his best pair of shoes, and a struggle ensues, but he lets her have her way, knowing the damage has been done and there's no option but to give her up. Meanwhile, across town small time pimp Jack (John Lurie) is also having woman trouble...
Although it's really men who get them into hot water and see them meet up in unwelcome circumstances during the second part of a three act story. Waits and Lurie were not alone as the stars of Down By Law, as the third member of the unlikely friendship that develops was Roberto Benigni, the Italian comic actor now best known for winning the Best Actor and Best Picture Oscars for his Holocaust comedy-drama Life is Beautiful, which has led him to be the object of great derision from certain elements in movie fandom ever since. Whether that award-gatherer was his best work was debatable, but you just had to watch him in his Italian farces to know he was a very accomplished performer.
Or if you didn't fancy his broad, often manic humour, you could try watching him in Down By Law, where he was sweetness personified, a stranger abroad who has somehow ended up in the same prison cell as Zack and Jack have. Those two are there because they have, in typical movie tough guy hero fashion, been framed for crimes they did not commit, Zack for murder after he was foolish enough to take money in exchange for driving a car containing a nasty surprise, and Jack for getting involved with an underage girl who he was actually tricked into visiting just as the cops arrived. And Roberto, or Bob as his cellmates call him? He's in there for murder too, though whether he really did it or whether he's making something up to look impressive in the prison is up for dispute; we don't really know.
This was directed and written by Jim Jarmusch, who by this point had become a darling of the American indie scene which was moving on in leaps and bounds artistically during the nineteen-eighties, and he was at the forefront of highly individual yet accomplished low budget works, with Down By Law possibly his crowning achievement. Of course, ask a bunch of his fans and you will get a selection of opinions about what they think is his greatest movie, there's no definitive answer, yet thanks to cinematographer Robby Müller it was assuredly his best-looking effort, with luminous, highly detailed black and white photography offering a wonderful depth to the image that contrasts with the often goofy comedy that arises over the course of the characters' not exactly agreeable or consensual companionship.
It was also one of Jarmusch's most quotable films, especially if you liked talking in an Italian accent, as just about everything Benigni says will stick in the memory, either because it makes you laugh or because it's unexpectedly poignant. However, merely mentioning the rhyme "I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!" will immediately take anyone who has had the pleasure of seeing this back to the scene where Roberto almost starts a riot by repeating it with some force as Zack and Jack join in. The sense of boredom that the three men suffer in their dingy cell drives them to initially fight with each other, but the European proves quite the distraction with his little book of English phrases passing for his best attempts at conversation, and that making a connection in the least friendly of environments is what renders the tone of the film so winning, even endearing. Once the trio have escaped into the Louisiana bayou they find themselves behaving much as they did while inside, one of the rich ironies peppered over a hilarious, deceptively slight and often touching tale. Music by Lurie and Waits.