In a very real sense the ultimate New York movie, Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery (1957) is cinema-as-bog-body, living history captured with such fortune and care that there’s no sign of decay after 50-plus years. Anyone who’d like near-firsthand familiarity with the Lower East Side of the postwar years need look no further; Rogosin’s famous, if underseen, landmark wades into the notorious human ruin as no other film ever did.
A young, hard-drinking rail worker (Ray Salyer, looking like Ed Burns Sr.) arrives on the Bowery with a suitcase and a thirst; the suitcase he loses, after he hooks up with a gaggle of paperbag-faced lushes in a gin mill. He befriends Gorman, played by an old, cirrhosis-beset storyteller named Gorman Hendricks, who went on a binge when the shooting ended and promptly died. Ray hits bottom, swears off, hits it again, gets lost. There isn’t much more story than that, and Rogosin’s intent was to simply erect a narrative to hang his neighborhood portrait on, filling it with found objects called Bowery drunks, men who sell each other their own clothes for Muscatel, swill Sterno when they must, and have long since forgotten what their real lives were once about.
Landing in the public eye a few years after Morris Engel’s Coney Island–set Little Fugitive, Rogosin’s modest, chilly movie also influenced Cassavetes and the French New Wavers, and from there American independent cinema was on its way to becoming an identifiable species. Oddly, too, On the Bowery was nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar, and won a doc prize at Venice—without being a documentary at all. If anything, Rogosin’s use of real-life, on-the-street footage recalls Robert Flaherty’s slippery approach to reality and, as a result, challenges the entire notion of “documentary.” Or would, if Rogosin ever characterized his movie as nonfiction. In retrospect, it’s astonishing that any viewer, much less the Academy, could take in the film’s shot-countershot arrangements, staged dialogue, and camera-controlled setups and ever dream that the film wasn’t fiction.
A vérité version of The Iceman Cometh‘s barrelhouse swoon, On the Bowery is a tumbler-shot of Walker Evans blues. Often, Rogosin approaches the queasy compromises of Frederick Wiseman’s insane asylum doc, Titicut Follies—these howling alkies can hardly be held responsible for themselves—but there’s no arguing with the film’s veracity or commitment. Film Forum is also showing a new, orthodox making-of doc directed by Rogosin’s son, Michael, which answers many questions despite the fact that most of Bowery‘s participants, cast, and crew, are long dead from drink.