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Ten of the best down-and-out characters on film

Our favourite beat-down chancers from 'The Wrestler' to Andy Warhol

This week sees the UK re-release of Jim Jarmusch's 1986 masterpiece, Down By Law – a rambling, broke-down arthouse film that redeemed the down-and-out on screen. Three New Orleans jail cellmates – a pimp (John Lurie), a DJ (patron saint of bums Tom Waits) and an irrepressibly cheery Italian tourist (Roberto Benigni) make a break for it in a black comedy that sees them sweat their rotten luck in the swamps. To celebrate the re-release, we're clocking our favourite odes to beat-down chancers on film. 

STRANGER THAN PARADISE (1984)

This hip and grimy Jarmusch classic, in which desultory Willie (John Lurie) deals with an unwanted visit to his New York apartment of his cousin Eva (Eszter Balint) from Hungary, also deserves a top nod. Though she reminds him of an identity he’s trying to abandon, he warms to her company despite himself, especially after she steals him a TV dinner (what more could a lowly chancer hope for?)

DRUGSTORE COWBOY (1989) 

Dreamer wastrels and hustlers people Gus Van Sant’s most iconic Portland-set indies, from Mala Noche to My Own Private Idaho. In his adaptation of James Fogle’s autobiographical novel, Matt Dillon stars as an addict on a road trip with a ragtag crew who finance their habits by robbing drugstores, until their flimsy luck soon enough runs out. Counter-culture wordsmith and underbelly hero William S. Burroughs crowns this film's down-and-outness by a cameo as a junkie priest.

FLESH (1968)

Directed by Warhol associate Paul Morrissey, this cult classic of casual licentiousness and the pragmatic opportunism of desperation follows the exploits of Joe (underground star Joe Dallesandro), a laconic youth who is working the New York streets as a hustler to make some money to help out his wife's girlfriend with an abortion.

FACTOTUM (2005)

Beat down by the drudgery of making a buck in a string of menial jobs while boozing and hooking up with women around the grimier parts of LA, broke writer Henry Chinaski is the alter-ego of confessional poet of the gutter Charles Bukowski in his novel Factotum, played by Matt Dillon in Bent Hamer’s deadpan, episodic screen adaptation.

THE WRESTLER (2008)

Mickey Rourke also played boozehound Chinaski in 1987 Bukowski adaptation Barfly before leaving acting to become a pro boxer. Darren Aronofsky’s grimy drama hits close to home, with a busted-looking Rourke in a lauded comeback as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a celeb in the 80s who though washed-up finds it hard to face retirement, with regrets and the everyday grind a sore second for the ego-pump of the ring.

STREETWISE (1984)

Martin Bell's gritty doc, soundtracked by Tom Waits (you get the feel), grew out of a photo assignment on a Seattle underbelly of hustlers, dumpster divers and teen prostitutes. It revealed that even in a place billed as "America's most liveable city" youth desperation was rampant.

NOTHING BUT A MAN (1964)

Black railroad-worker Duff, a former drifter, struggles to maintain dignity and not succumb to booze and despair in Michael Roemer's grittily naturalistic, soul-weary indie, set amid the all-pervasive racism of the 60s Deep South, which demanded kowtowing to a corrupt status quo to hold down a family and job.

THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK (1971)

Small-time dealer Bobby wins Helen over with his scruffy charm when she’s at an emotional low-point and they move in together. Under the pressure and co-dependency of a growing junk habit amid a heroin drought in New York’s Needle Park their relationship descends into mutual distrust in Jerry Schatzberg’s grimy, naturalistic New Hollywood classic – the breakthrough film for a young Al Pacino.

ON THE ROAD (2012)

Beat muse and madcap force of nature Neal Cassady, who stole cars and fathered children with the same devil-may-care impulsiveness and disdain for the shackles of accountability, was immortalised as Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s exuberantly poetic 1957 book about their cross-country adventures. Its spontaneous prose could never fully be translated to screen – but director Walter Salles and actors Garrett Hedlund and Sam Riley give it a decent shot.

SIMON KILLER (2013)

Drifter desperation is far from romanticised in this bleakly menacing, stylish indie from New York director Antonio Campos. An American graduate travels to Europe to get over a break-up. After aimlessly wandering the streets of Paris, he shacks up with a sweet-natured prostitute (Mati Diop) but his volatility and narcissism push his scheme for ending their financial straits toward a very dark place.