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Martin Scorsese has described Lionel Rogosin's partly fictional documentary On the Bowery (1956) as "A milestone in American cinema... Rogosin's film is so true to my memories of that place and that time. He 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."
Especially in its own time, when documentaries were generally feel-good travelogues or nature studies, On the Bowery was controversial, even shocking, in its depiction of New York City's Lower East Side and its derelict residents. Inspired by American filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty, a pioneer in "docufiction," and the Italian neo-realism movement including Vittorio De Sica's 1948 The Bicycle Thief, Rogosin wanted to seize upon a subject that would make a similarly strong statement. He settled on the men on the Bowery and their lives that had been ravaged by alcohol and homelessness. Resigning from his family business, Beaunit Mills, he spent his own money - an estimated $60,000 - to make the film.
Rogosin submerged himself in Bowery life for months before filming began, becoming thoroughly familiar with the area and its residents. He began shooting on his own with a hidden camera, then hired a commercial crew, but was unsatisfied with the results. After writer Mark Sufrin and cinematographer Dick Bagley agreed to work with Rogosin, filming began in earnest in July 1955. At first working without a script, the collaborators decided that a simple story outline based on the lives of the men they had met would serve their purposes better than random documentary filming. Shooting continued on a grueling day-and-night schedule through October. Rogosin then worked with editors Helen Levitt and Carl Lerner in assembling the film, with Lerner proving particularly helpful in achieving Rogosin's vision and teaching him the art of film editing.
The film covers three days in the life of Ray Salyer, playing himself as a part-time railroad worker who wanders onto the Bowery for a drunken spree and finds himself descending into the hellish life of a homeless alcoholic on skid row. The men (and a few women) drink, argue, play dominoes, listen to a sermon at the Bowery mission and sleep in flophouses or on the sidewalk. The film asks the question: Can Salyer, a weathered but still robust war veteran, return to a life of work and sobriety, or is he doomed to a shadowy half-life on the Bowery? In real life, Salyer was offered a Hollywood contract but chose to remain where he was, remarking that "There's nothing else in life but the booze." He disappeared and wasn't heard from again. Gorman Hendricks, another Bowery man who had been befriended by Rogosin and played a major role in the film, died of cirrhosis of the liver shortly after it was completed. Rogosin paid for Hendricks' burial and dedicated the film to him.
On the Bowery was not well-received by most mainstream reviewers of the day, with criticism aimed at the lack of a formal plot, the realistically rough cinematography and performances of the non-actors. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it "sordid and pitiful." But the movie's reputation grew after it received the Grand Prize for documentary at the Venice Film Festival, a British Academy Award as Best Documentary Feature and an Oscar® nomination in the same category. It was later selected as one of the "Ten Best Movies Between 1950-59" by Richard Griffith of the Museum of Modern Art Film Library.
The film, which opened at the 55th Street Playhouse in New York City, had difficulty in finding audiences, but it established Rogosin as one of the founding fathers in the development of independent film in America and became an influence on many independent filmmakers worldwide. More contemporary critics have recognized its power. Basil Wright wrote in Sight and Sound that, "In the bars and on the sidewalks, the camera leans sympathetically across table or grating towards these men and women who have passed the point of no return, and have reached a hideous sort of happiness achieved at best by gin and whiskey, and at worst by a shared squeeze from a can of metal polish... Rogosin insists that we must love them; he seems to say, with Dostoyevsky, 'the sense of their own degradation is as essential to those reckless unbridled natures as the sense of their own generosity.' "
New York native Rogosin (1924-2000) had experienced fascism firsthand as a soldier during World War II and vowed to make films that would attack it. After establishing himself with On the Bowery, he created Come Back, Africa (1959), a strong indictment of apartheid, by secretly documenting the life of a South African migrant worker in Johannesburg. His other feature documentaries included Black Roots (1970), Black Fantasy (1972) and Woodcutters of the Deep South (1973). Rogosin once said that, prior to making On the Bowery, he had not watched a commercial American movie for many years: "I was isolated at that time... you have to understand that above all, I've been inspired, motivated by life and not by films."
On the Bowery was restored in 2006 from the original negatives by the Cineteca di Bologna and the laboratory L'Immagine Ritrovato, in cooperation with Rogosin Heritage, Inc. In 2008 it was chosen for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant." It has attracted further attention from theatrical screenings in recent years in New York and Los Angeles, and was released on DVD and Blu-ray in 2012.
by Roger Fristoe