‘On the Bowery’


Lionel Rogosin’s 1957 skid-row quasi-doc is a quintessential chunk of New York history. For two years, Rogosin and his crew frequented Bowery dives and flophouses, using a hidden camera and some cannily staged scenes to dramatize a particular white working-class culture. According to credited co-writer Mark Sufrin, “we went into the bars, two at a time, unshaven, dressed in Bowery clothes, feigning drunkenness, forced to swallow glass after glass of the foul, flat beer they serve . . . The public will never see half of what we captured on film and sound-tape—too raw, too elemental, too brutal, too depressing.” The narrative of this grim picaresque is stiff and perfunctory: An unemployed railroad man called Ray arrives carrying a cardboard suitcase; he gets soused but, before he can sell his extra pants for a flop, his kip is lifted by a new friend. Not exactly a Virgil, Ray nevertheless takes the viewer on a particular tour of hell—sleeping on the street, waiting for day jobs, dining in soup kitchens. The images are everything, and On the Bowery is closer to an underground movie than cinema vérité (although it did inspire vérité pioneer Jean Rouch to make Chronicle of a Summer). The final montage of this classic human document is an unanswerable j’accuse: scores of life-battered faces staring down the camera.