"On the Bowery" may be more than half a century old, but it is no relic. This landmark documentary disturbs and compels as much today in a new 35mm restoration as it did when it opened in 1956 to both criticism and acclaim.
Though only 65 minutes long, the story of three days spent in the heart of New York's infamous skid row (characterized by a rescue mission minister as "the saddest and maddest street in the world") unnerved some critics with its rough-edged rawness but also captured numerous awards, including an Oscar nomination, a British Academy Award and the Venice Film Festival documentary grand prize.
Lionel Rogosin was influenced by pioneer documentarian Robert Flaherty ("Nanook of the North," "Man of Aran") as well as such groundbreaking Italian neorealist films as "The Bicycle Thief." But "Bowery's" producer-director forged his own path to reflecting reality that is quite different from what doc filmmakers do today.
First, Rogosin spent a full six months on the Bowery, the once-downtrodden Manhattan neighborhood where rootless men (and a few women) lurched around in the shadows of the since-demolished Third Avenue El with only one aim: how to find or finance their next drink.
Once he started shooting, Rogosin's goals, he wrote, were "to film those who have been forgotten, to film from the inside, and to film with respect, clarity and tenderness," all of which he succeeded in doing.
To this end, the director took a two-fold approach. In line with Flaherty's earlier work, he selected a handful of alcoholics he'd met during his months of research and constructed a story around their lives and personalities, a story that he then filmed in a quasi-improvisational style with these men as his stars.
This story was set against more classic cinéma vérité-type documentary footage of life on the Bowery, footage that was shot in beautiful black and white (at times with a concealed camera) by cinematographer Richard Bagley.
Bagley was not only an accomplished cameraman, but he was also quite a heavy drinker himself, and it is possible to feel genuine empathy in his shots of the Bowery's harsh realities: men staggering around in alcoholic dazes, passed out on the sidewalks in complete stupors, screaming savage vituperation at one another in the crazed arguments that were nightly occurrences at the Bedlam-like local bars.
Into this pungent atmosphere, Rogosin introduced his two main characters. First comes Ray Salyer, newly arrived on the Bowery after a stint working on the railroad. Movie-star handsome in a Gary Cooper way, Ray is so eager for a drink that he hits the bars suitcase in hand as soon as he gets to town.
Ray soon makes the acquaintance of one of the Bowery's older regulars, Gorman Hendricks. Sometimes called Doc because he claims to have once been a doctor as well as a newspaperman, the garrulous Gorman becomes Ray's guide to this disturbing underworld.
But just because men drink together in bars with names like Round House, Confidence and Arcade, that does not exactly make them classic friends. The characters in "Bowery" help one another at times, but in their addicted frenzy for drinks they're willing to rob and betray as often as they offer assistance. Though the reverend at the Bowery Mission may say "there are no hopeless cases with God," Rogosin's film makes you not so sure.
Because Gorman and Ray are of the Bowery, the film features the genuine talk of the time, people asking for "musky" (short for muscatel) and referring to "sneaky pete," a pint bottle hidden in a paper bag. There are even shots of Sterno being drained through a handkerchief to produce the deadly beverage known as canned heat.
Yet no matter what it shows them doing, "On the Bowery" always offers its subjects what dignity and respect they can achieve. As "The Perfect Team: The Making of On the Bowery" — a short documentary playing on the same bill — demonstrates, this film was a true collaboration between filmmakers and subjects.
"On the Bowery" is dedicated to Hendricks, who died of cirrhosis after the film was finished but before it was released. As to the charismatic Salyer, he squirmed under the media spotlight focused on him after the film came out, which included some genuine offers to star in dramatic films.
"I just want to be left alone," he was quoted as saying. "There is nothing else in life but the booze." In the midst of everything, he suddenly left New York and was never heard from again. It was a fate that this singular film has thankfully avoided.