ON THE BOWERY
(director: Lionel Rogosin/writer; cinematographer: Richard Bagley; editor: Carl Lerner; music: Charles Mills; cast: Ray Salyer, Gorman Hendricks, Frank Matthews; Runtime: 65; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Lionel Rogosin; Milestone Film; 1957)
“A landmark documentary.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A landmark documentary (actually a dramatized work of non-fiction, with improv scenes influenced from a slender story line) directed by Lionel Rogosin(“Woodcutters of the Deep South”/”Black Roots”/”Come Back, Africa”). It depicts the hidden dark side of America by showing the actual inhabitants of NYC’s skid row in 1955 going about their daily routines. The bums live only to see how they can pay for their next drink. They are seen day and night slumped over in a stupor in the street, drinking sterno or hopping on a truck for a day’s work. The first-time director was influenced by documentarian Robert Flaherty. He spent six months drinking with the Bowery denizens and then casting his new non-professional actor buddies as themselves, shooting the pic in four months with cameraman Richard Bagley using a hidden camera.
It chronicles the three days that the handsome, polite and well-spoken unemployed alcoholic drifter railroad worker Ray Salver spent on the Bowery, on his first visit there, as he goes drinking in a gin mill while carrying his soon to be stolen suitcase. At the bar Ray meets a colorful silver-tongued old-time Bowery resident, Gorman Hendricks, who claims he was once a doctor, and the veteran shows the newcomer the ins-and-outs of life in the Bowery. The untrustworthy Gorman went on a drinking binge when the shooting ended and died.
Ray’s story is of a guy battling his inner demons, who arrives on the scene looking like a young Gary Cooper and soon departs looking like a grizzled street bum who visited one gin mill too many. In desperation to get a place to sleep after his suitcase of clothes, to be used to get a flophouse room, is snatched by Gorman, Ray turns up at a Bowery Mission shelter to hear a lecture by the pastor saying no one is hopeless, chowing down on the free meal, and given newspaper pages to act as a bedspread to sleep on in the crowded Mission’s basement floor. The film follows Ray around as he interacts with a group of other drunks, as he heads down a path of no return when we see him last on his way to some other destination. In real-life Ray turned down a Hollywood contract of $40,000 and was never to be heard from again.
The b/w film was restored by Italy’s Cineteca di Bologna without lossof material. This sad but unforgettable nostalgic trip down memory lane, beautifully records a long bygone era and does so with accuracy and compassion, sympathetic to the poor lost souls who can’t overcome their drinking addiction. Such problems still resonate today, even though the Bowery shown in the movie no longer exists as it did during those days.
It won Best Documentary at the Venice Film Festival and received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature. Lionel Rogosin called by filmmakers such as John Cassavetes “probably the greatest documentary filmmaker of all time,”was a pioneer who opened the door for filming a new type of intelligent indie film. Rogosin went on to open the Bleecker Street Cinema, a place known for showing outstanding foreign, art, noir and indie films. It’s a place I greatly appreciated when attending the NYU film school, as it was one of my favorite art house movie theaters that showed great films that few other theaters did from 1960-1990.
REVIEWED ON 2/23/2012 GRADE: A