On the Bowery (1956)

“Go out there and get a job, make my last stand out there … If I don’t make it this time I’m giving up.” A fascinating and haunting documentary, On the Bowery, which was directed by Lionel Rogosin (1924-2000), follows the misfortunes of two desperate alcoholic drifters—non-actors Ray Salyer and Gorman Hendricks—as they make their way through the nightmarish world of rundown bars and cheap flophouses during a three-day period in New York City’s once notorious Bowery district. Ray makes a beeline to the Confidence Bar & Grill as soon as he hits town with cash earned as a railroad worker. Gorman and several other drunks take advantage of Ray’s generosity as he quickly wastes all his cash on booze. In a drunken stupor, Ray heads out into an alley and passes out while Gorman steals his cheap cardboard suitcase and beds down in a flophouse for the night. Although he tries to claw his way out (even attending a sermon at the Bowery Mission), Ray descends deeper and deeper into the hellish world of the Bowery. Ironically, his one chance to get out is provided by Gorman, who pawns the pocket watch Ray was carrying in his suitcase and gives some of the proceeds to Ray. The film features brilliant black-and-white cinematography by Richard Bagley. Gorman died several weeks before the film opened, while Salyer, according to legend, turned down a Hollywood contract (once remarking in an interview, “Some people like to hunt, some to fish—I like to drink”) hopped a freight train, disappeared and was never heard of again. Martin Scorsese called On the Bowery a “milestone in American cinema” and remarked that Rogosin “accomplished his goal, of portraying the lives of the people who wound up on the Bowery, as simply and honestly and compassionately as possible. It’s a rare achievement.” Rogosin, who was greatly inspired by Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the North) and the Italian Neorealists, went on to direct the powerful anti-apartheid film Come Back, Africa in 1960. In 2009, Rogosin’s son Michael came out with a documentary about the making of On the Bowery called The Perfect Team. Although On the Bowery featured scripted footage, it was still nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature but lost out to Albert Schweitzer.

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