Review: On the Bowery (1957)

>> Saturday, April 14, 2012

USA/B&W-65m./Dir: Lionel Rogosin/Wr: Richard Bagley, Lionel Rogosin, & Mark Sufrin /Cast: Ray Salyer (Himself), Gorman Hendricks (Himself), Frank Matthews (Himself)

Alcoholism has never been captured with a more unflinchingly eye than in Lionel Rogosin’s 1957 semi-documentary, On The Bowery. The film was nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar and was awarded the BAFTA in the same category, but it is not a true documentary in the traditional sense. It is a mixture of narrative scenes combined with cinema vérité footage that combine to give an illusion of reality.

Director Lionel Rogosin came upon the style for the film after many false starts. Determined to depict life in all its seedy reality, he hung out for many months with the stumblebums and stewpots of New York’s skid row neighborhood, commonly referred to as the Bowery. There he befriended a wasted old alcoholic by the name of Gorman Hendricks, who gave Rogosin a guided tour of the city’s underbelly. Once Rogosin felt familiar with the way of life of the Bowery’s forgotten men, he began filming with a hidden camera, but the results were lacking. He then employed a professional film crew, but he was once again unsatisfied with the results.

Rogosin’s breakthrough came after meeting writer Mark Sufrin and cinematographer Dick Bagley in Greenwich Village’s White Horse Tavern. The pair was intrigued with Rogosin’s idea, and together they came up with a plan that would create a truthful portrait of the denizens of skid row. They began filming with no story in mind, and then worked up a simple script outline to hold the film together. The staged scenes allowed Gorman and the other homeless Bowery men to improvise using their own language, while keeping the film from deteriorating into a series of directionless vignettes. The narrative scenes were then mixed with documentary footage to put them in context of the larger reality.

The film tells the story of drifter, Ray Salyer, who enters the Bowery with a suitcase and a few bucks in his pocket from working on the railroad. He wanders into the Confidence Bar and Grill, where a group of withered alcoholics help him spend his money on beer and port wine. When his cash has depleted, the drunks move along to look for another mark, but an old man, Gorman Hendricks, sticks around to tell Ray where he can trade some clothes for enough scratch for another drink and a flop. After selling a pair of pants, Gorman gets Ray drunk with the earnings, and the newbie passes out in the street. Gorman then steals Ray’s valise and uses it as collateral to get a hotel room for himself. That begins three days of hell on the Bowery, in which Ray will encounter day labor, sermonizing, debauchery, and physical violence.

Rogosin’s uncompromising portrait of men dedicated to their alcoholism is very slight in terms of story; and if watched as a narrative film, it can come across as slow-moving, saggy, and predictable. However, if viewed as a document of a time and place, On the Bowery is fascinating. The black and white photography is striking and has a harsh, unforgiving beauty. The movie is like a Weegee crime photograph come to life, and is best watched like one would view a photography exhibit in an art gallery.

On the Bowery was a highly influential film that played a significant part in the independent film movement. John Cassavetes often sighted Rogosin as a major influence on his work. Unfortunately, the film did not do as much to help the men on which it focused. Gorman Hendricks died shortly after the film was released. Ray Salyer was offered a Hollywood contract based upon his performance in On the Bowery, but he turned it down, preferring to dedicate himself to his boozing.

Drinks Consumed--Wine (muscatel and port), beer, gin, and other unnamed liquors

Intoxicating Effects--Staggering, slurred speech, bickering, brawling, public disturbance, jail time, boasting, passing out, the shakes, harmonizing, and bar tossed

Potent Quotables--RAY: These guys sure took off. Didn’t they?
GORMAN: Sure. They didn’t see any more in evidence, so naturally, they’re gonna go.
RAY: Anything for a drink, huh?
GORMAN: Yeah. I reckon.
RAY: Ah, well. That’s the way it goes.
GORMAN: Well, that’s the bowery for ya.

Video Availability--DVDand Blu-ray(Milestone Films)

Similarly Sauced Cinema--Barbet Schroeder glorified drunken stumblebums in Barfly (1987).

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I like to drink. I like to watch movies. I like to watch movies about drinking. I like to write about the movies I’ve watched, but only if I’ve had a drink first.

All text including the title "Booze Movies: The 100 Proof Film Guide" Copyright William T. Garver

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