Friday, June 1, 2018

Down By Law (1986) Neo Orleans Noir Fantasy

In reality, New Orleans is the main drain, sittin' there right on the bottom. The gritty sewer of practically everything Southern.

A strange gem from the imagination of Jim Jarmusch, the magic talents of an amazing cast, and the crumbling beauty of New Orleans and Louisiana.

It's an entertaining, low budget, picaresque film that's part Neo Noir, part Prison Film/Prison Noir with a lighthearted rift on the drama of (Brute Force (1947), Canon City (1948), Caged (1950), Convicted (1950) Crashout (1955), and Cool Hand Luke (1967)) but without the detailing or planing part of a prison break out. Part Dogpatch, Hillbilly, Cajun, Swamp Noir (Moonrise (1948), Swamp Women (1956) Bayou (1957)), and add a sprinkle of sewer from He Walked By Night (1948) and The Third Man (1949) and a pinch of pixie dust Fairy Tale.

The film stars John Lurie (Subway Riders (1981), Stranger Than Paradise (1984), Paris, Texas (1984), Wild at Heart (1990)), an actor and a jazz musician and founder of the The Lounge Lizards, Tom Waits (Paradise Alley (1978), The Cotton Club (1984)) , a musician and master artist of what I like to call "Songs From the Twilight Zone" or more simply Aural Noir. Roberto Benigni,  an actor director, and writer, who won an Oscar for Life Is Beautiful (1997). Ellen Barkin (The Big Easy (1986), Siesta (1987), Sea of Love (1989)), Bille Neal (Jacob's Ladder (1990), A Kiss Before Dying (1991)), and  Nicoletta Braschi (Johnny Stecchino (1991), The Monster (1994)) and Life Is Beautiful (1997)). Rounding out the cast are Rockets Redglare (After Hours (1985), Talk Radio (1988), Trees Lounge (1996)), Vernel Bagneris (Pennies from Heaven (1981)), Timothea, and Joy N. Houck Jr. (Tightrope (1984), The Big Easy (1986)).

Opening sequence

It's the story of three men and three women.

The film starts with a traveling shot that begins with a close up of a hearse at a cemetery and ends in a second floor bedroom of a pimp named Jack the French Quarter in New Orleans. We see graves, shotgun shacks, decaying neighborhoods, bayou shanties, stilt houses, and the balconies of Vieux Carré.  Jack (Lurie) and his current prostitute main squeeze Bobbie (Neal) are lying on satin sheets. Jack is woken up by a creaking sound. Its Julie (Timothea) one of his other girls rocking on the porch. She's watching the light change. When Jack crawls back under the sheets Bobbie awakens.

Bobbie (Neal) and Jack (Lurie)
Back across town with another traveling shot going out away from the French Quarter back through  a couple of cops making a roadside arrest, industrial areas, brown fields, junk yards and roadside trailer parks scattered haphazardly around bill boards to Zack's (Waits) paint peeling crib. we see Zack sneaking in to his graffiti scribbled flop trying not to wake is girlfriend Laurette (Barkin). Zack has gotten fired from his DJ job and has been on a drunk. When he sits on the bed Laurette awakens.

A French Quarter welcone to New Orleans 

Zack (Waits) sneaking in

Laurette (Barkin)
Laurett decides that she's throwing Zack out. We travel shot back from Zack's to the Quarter. Laurette is going through one of the great temper tantrums on celluloid. She is in her apartment, and is throwing all Zack's shit out into the street. Records, clothes, radio, right out through the second story windows.  She's screaming non stop, a women in meltdown. It's very entertaining.

In the time honored tradition of countless Southern potboilers, Barkin is the visually negative image. A wound up bond in the black slip. The yin, to say Elizabeth Taylor's cool and calm white slipped "Maggie The Cat." The yang in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. But its just an interesting visual juxtaposition. They both love their men but one chooses to stick the other to toss. Waits just sits there not saying a word and letting Barkin vent. Good move. Waits is sort of channeling noir icon Timothy Carey. He's all twitches and fidgety movements, like he's got an itch that won't stay scratched and Barkin as Laurett knows it. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, but in this case its not another woman it's Zack's drinking problem. She apparently still loves him and tells him that he's digging his own grave, but she just can't mentally can't take it anymore.

Laurette: [to Zack] Because you... because you don't take care of me... ya don't want me... ya don't wanna make any fucking commitment to me... I'VE *FINISHED* WITH YOU, ZACK! I've completely *finished* with you! Why doncha just go find some other li'l girl... I mean... that shouldn't be too difficult for you! I'm FED UP with you and YOUR FUCKIN' STUPID RADIO SHOWS!

Laurette: You're digging your own grave.

out the window with his boots
Zack is still sitting there, head bobbing up and down, like he's putting her rant all to some internal jive beat only he can hear. He's taking all this in. Laurette continues her purge. She doesn't get any reaction out of him until she grabs his favorite pair of, well lets say they're a sort of cross between ankle high cowboy boots and pointy Puerto Rican Fence Climbers, with fancy shiny brass tip guards. When she flings those out the window he goes after them like a dog for a chew toy. Besides his drinking problem, he must have a hell of a shoe fetish.

The detritus of his high living DJ life with Laurette strewn in the gutter.

It takes some searching but he finally finds his boots. He tosses the shoes he has on his feet away and lovingly slips into his precious footwear.

The boots in his hand

Polishing the scuffs off his boots
Might be time for Zack to kill another bottle..... while he contemplates his next move.

Back at Jacks, Bobbie, laying naked on the bed is shooting her mouth off.

Bobbie: You know, Jack, we could make some money together. Except you're always blowin' it. You know - gambling, gettin' high, showing off.
Jack: I gotta have fun, you know, baby ?

Bobbie: Yeah, yeah, I know. You're always makin' big big plans for tomorrow, and you know why ? 'Cause you're always fucking up today ! Look at that white girl, that Julie you started out with, she's all messed up now. All your girls are so messed up - except me. I can tell a lot of things about you. Some things you'd never put into your head. But you can't be so sure. My mom used to say that America is like a big melting pot, because she used to say that when you bring it to the boil, all the scum rises to the top. [she laughs sarcastically]

Bobbie: So maybe there's still hope for you yet, Jack. [she suddenly stops laughing] You listening to me ?

Bobbie: Shit. You don't understand any kind of people. Maybe that's your problem. You sure don't understand women at all. And a pimp is supposed to know about women. If you was a good pimp, you'd have hit me by now, you'd have done something. But I can just lay here, and talk forever, and you won't hear a single word. Like you don't even speak English ! You're lost in your big big plans, but I know about you, Jack.

Bobbie: My mama used to say that America's the big melting pot. You bring it to a boil and all the scum rises to the top.

The phone rings and Jack answers. A rival pimp Gig (Rockets Redglare ) wants to make a previous wrong right, He's downstairs and wants to come up and make him a proposition.

Bobbie: My mama used to say that America's the big melting pot. You bring it to a boil and all the scum rises to the top.

Gig is a sweaty, chubby, goober, missing a substantial amount of his front teeth, a fine specimen of Southern gentleman. Gig tells him he's got Jack a new piece of ass. A teenaged "Cajun Goddess." A fine piece of chicken to add to his stable of ladies. Gig's got her stashed in room 27 in a nearby French Quarter hotel.

"A fine piece of chicken"
Intrigued, Jack pimps himself out to retrieve Gig's "gift." He swings by Julie who is trying to sell her ass on the corner. So far it's been a slow night, no takers.

slow night
When he gets to the hotel he finds the new  girl on the bed in the darkened room. He's giving her the spiel, he'll protect her, take care of her buy her clothes, etc., etc. when he's busted by the cops. It was a set up. Gig set him up with under aged jail bait.  Jack just got a one way ticket to Noirsville.


Jail Bait

Detective Mandino (Joy Houck Jr.)
A very noir-ish, ominous, ending to the sequence where Mandino tells the girl that she'll have nothing to worry about, because after she rests a bit, he'll take care of her.


We next cut back to Zack half zoned out on a bender, at the back door of a bar sitting amongst the trash. He's first meets Bob (Benigni) who he tells to "buzz off!"

Bob ( Benigni)

Next a small time crook Preston walks up the street and spots Zack.

Preston (Vernel Bagneris) with Zack
Preston: Zack ! Hey man ! What the fuck ya doin' here in the garbage ?
Zack: [without looking at Preston] Just leave me alone, Preston. I'm in a bad mood.
Preston: Then I'm just the man you've been looking for. In fact, I've been looking for you.
Zack: That's a bad sign.
Preston: Now, Zack , baby ! I got somethin' real good for you. An hour's work for a whole lotta scratch.
Zack: I ain't interested.
Preston: Then you ARE in a bad mood. You won't even let me propose it to you ! Can you just listen to me for one minute, will ya ? One minute of your, uh... valuable time ?
Zack: [sighs in exasperation] Just fuck off, Preston.
Preston: [chuckles and acts like he's going to walk away from him, but then goes back to him] All I wanna do is pay you a grand, in exchange of a single hour of your very very valuable time. But this ain't no break in, no delivery of controlled substances, none of this stuff. It's just to drive a car, from one part of town to another, alone. That's it.
Zack: What kind of car will that be, Preston ?
Preston: That will be a very nice car. A very nice, very expensive imported car, which just happens to be in between owners at the present time.
Zack: [mutters to himself]
Preston: Look man, all you gotta do is drive the car across town, park it, leave it. I can pay half grand upfront, and the other half later. The whole thing's over in an hour! It's very safe, very clean, and believe me, i can get a million guys to do this for me.
Zack: Then why don't you do it yourself ?
Preston: I'm offerin' a grand so I don't have to answer stupid questions like that.
Zack: Well... I might consider the grand upfront... then I might think about it.
Preston: Jesus ! [a pause] Zack... you are in a nasty mood. So just to cheer you up a little bit, I give you 750 upfront. OK ? [Zack rises to leave him on the spot but he holds him back] Alright, alright, Mr. All-Mighty-Hot-Shit. I'm gonna do you this favour. [he gives Zack the keys of the car]
Zack: [impressed, but still muttering to himself] Oh man ! A Jaguar !
Preston: I'll give you the whole thing upfront [he gives Zack the money] Now you owe me. [long pause] Zack, you know you can buy yourself twenty girls for all of that ?

". . .you know you can buy yourself twenty girls for all of that ?"
While Zack is doing the transporting he's pulled over by NOPD, and arrested after a dead man is found in the trunk. He's hauled off and booked into Noirsville!

the police

"Wha'd I do drive too fast?"

a dead man

The New Orleans Parish Prison section takes up the middle third of the film. Jack and Zack are put in the same cell followed quickly by Bob. They go through the typical Prison Genre old clichés but Jarmusch gives them to you with a new twist. One memorable sequence is when Jack and Zack are telling one another how they were set up. When they finally ask Bob what he in for he tells them he killed a man with an eight ball. The only one that actually did do something.


shotgun shacks
Julie (Timothea)

Nicoletta (Nicoletta Braschi)

The women though their parts are minimal comparatively, are all excellent in their short scenes. Jarmusch lets Lurie, Waits, and Benigni create much of their own characters personalities and this results in an interactive spontaneity that would be impossible to get with written lines.

The film is a joy to watch, as like a pinball it bounces around genre conventions keeping you guessing which tangent it will take. The gorgeous black and white cinematography was lensed by Robby Müller (The American Friend (1977), Paris, Texas (1984), Barfly (1987), Dead Man (1995)), and the score was composed by John Lurie.

Screencaps are from the Criterion DVD. 9/10

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