Sometimes the best movie experiences are the ones that are the most unexpected. You go into a film, not having heard of it before or really know what it’s about, but does it ever make an impact. I was not familiar with the film On the Bowery before, and I almost didn’t attend a local screening. Thankfully I did, and this is a little film I would highly recommend.
This is a title that premiered back in 1956 by filmmaker Lionel Rogosin, who became interested in the characters that populated an area of southern Manhattan known as the Bowery. Over the years it had descended into an impoverished area populated by alcoholics and the homeless. The Third Avenue El train ran over the area which further overshadowed the streets. Rogosin spent months getting to know the people, mostly men, who inhabited the area while trying to figure out the best way to capture their daily life for a film. He finally settled on a docufiction, a combination of documentary with a fictional storyline to give the film its narrative. All the people in the film are Bowery inhabitants, not actors, who are following a basic storyline based on an actual event. The film is also influenced by Italian neorealism cinema, which are stories about the impoverished and use non-actors.
The story centers on the character of Ray (Ray Salyer), who shows up to he Bowery after a stint of doing railroad work. With suitcase in hand containing some clothes and a pocket watch, he goes into a local bar for some drinks and chats up with the locals with the hopes of finding work. He befriends Gorman (Gorman Hendricks), who betrays Ray by stealing his suitcase when Ray passes out on the sidewalk from drinking too much. Over the next couple of days, Ray tries to find enough work to get him enough money so he can move on to the next venture, but is sucked into a cycle of making meager money which gets spent on alcohol. He is aware of his alcoholism but helpless to ride above it.
The restored print I viewed was fantastic. The camera catches many closeups of these Bowery residents. Their faces look dirty, worn out, and haggard. The stark black and white photography really stands out here (as the El train was no longer running at the time of filming, the filmmakers took advantage of the shadows it cast over the streets before it was officially torn down). The camera makes no judgment upon these characters and the choices they make. Considering that Rogosin immersed himself into this culture, he really captures what it was like to live in this area. At a running time of just 65 minutes, the film really leaves its mark on you.