A bum’s life
Idocudrama, not rated, 3.5 chiles Tiger’s blood doesn’t course through the veins of the men in On the Bowery. They’re fueled by a more ersatz mixture of flat beer topped off with 15-cent muscatel and a chaser of “canned heat,” a volatile and potentially lethal concoction they squeeze out of cans of Sterno.
These men are forgotten — not only subsiding on the absolute fringes of society, long ago shunned by their families and friends, but having trouble remembering who they are. They live to forget, for the quick high that will erase all of their pain and suffering, transporting them from the hellish depths they occupy to some place closer to paradise, even if the trip is false and fleeting, evaporating into the night.
All too often, they black out and find themselves sprawled on a sidewalk or curled up under a park bench the next morning, not really sure of their whereabouts but certain that more misery lies ahead. It’s the booze that drains their meager resources, leaving them broke, beaten, and vulnerable to a barrage of indignities perpetrated by friends and foes alike. They know all too well that they’re on a deadend street, but they can’t pull back or escape the dark shadows cast by the Third Avenue El overhanging their regular haunts — the meanest back alleys, the lowest-rent flophouses, and cheapest gin mills in New York City.
The first film by Lionel Rogosin, On the Bowery, originally released in 1957, doesn’t attempt to sanitize or psychoanalyze these men, nor to lionize or castigate them. Instead it captures their daily habits, their nightly binges, their weary faces, their sapped bodies, and the decaying urban cage that holds them hostage. Rogosin chose a difficult tightrope to walk, which perhaps explains his decision not to create a straightforward documentary or a full-fledged work of fiction but rather a film that straddles that chasm, mixing and matching techniques used by master storytellers as well as crack reporters.
He drew inspiration from Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, the defining achievement of the Italian neorealist movement, as well as Robert Flaherty’s older anthropological epics, including Nanook of the North and The Man From Aran. But in the straight-laced 1950s, when Rogosin shot On the Bowery, this slice of Skid Row culture shocked most moviegoers, not only because it depicted a world they couldn’t fathom but because it did so without attaching any casual or easy moral lessons to the squalid proceedings.
The film, in a sense, served as a pivotal forerunner for the American independent cinema that emerged in the 1960s, when the introduction of lightweight, hand-held cameras and sound gear made it easier for artists to create noncommercial works outside the Hollywood studio system. It’s no wonder that John Cassavetes, one of the movers and shakers in the ’ 60s scene, hailed Rogosin as “probably the greatest documentary filmmaker of all time.”
To get to the heart of the truth, Rogosin immersed himself in the seedy Bowery milieu for months before he filmed anything. Over time, he befriended two characters who became his de facto travel guides. They represented the yin and yang of the Bowery — one an elderly potbellied mountebank and raconteur nursing a 50-beer-a-day habit, the other a younger, wellchiseled Southern laborer who could have been the next Gary Cooper if only he had been able to corral his insatiable thirst for liquor.
Booze in the hood: Ray Salyer, left, and Gorman Hendricks in On the Bowery