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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on DVDs. Pick of the Week: Classic. On the Bowery

On the Bowery (The Films of Lionel Rogosin, Volume One) (Also Deluxe Blu-ray Edition) (Four Stars)
U.S.: Lionel Rogosin, 1957 (Milestone)

On the Bowery is Lionel Rogosin’s legendary 1956 documentary about men who drink, set in the derelict bars, flophouses and missions of New York City‘s Bowery in the ’50s. Now beautifully restored in 35 mm by Milestone Films, this black and white film chronicle of a short season in hell below the 3rd Avenue El, is an almost unbearably honest film. It remains a shattering experience, one of the most haunting and moving “slice of life“ movies of the entire post-war period.

Rogosin, who lived near the Bowery on Perry Street, researched the film for several years, then shot a film that was partly scripted, and partly an improvised dramatic story, centering on two actual Bowery denizens, Ray Salyer and Gorman Hendricks, who play themselves.

Ray and Gorman were both hard-core alcoholics, and Rogosin and his brilliant cinematographer and co-writer Richard Bagley, followed them around into the local bars (The Roundhouse, The Confidence Bar and Grill), shooting them as they drank the cheap wine that was their booze of choice, and as they socialized with the other Bowery bums, until they finally staggered off into the night, to find a cheap hotel, or collapse on the sidewalks in drunken sleep.

It is no exaggeration to say that Ray and Gorman, two amateurs with no film experience at all, give two of the most extraordinary and moving performances in the history of the American cinema. These two non-professional actors let us into their lives and give themselves over to Rogosin’s film and its story with a courage, an openness — and a seemingly unerring sense of the camera and their relation to it — that few professional actors could have mustered.

Ray is a handsome rail worker, with a preoccupied look, who reminds you a little of Gary Cooper or Joel McCrea. He arrives in the Bowery, after a season of railroad work, with a suitcase of clothes, savings and belongings. Immediately, he hits the bars where he meets Gorman, a fat, gabby, dissolute old man with shifty eyes and an easy line of bull and patter. Gorman reminds you a bit of Charley Grapewin, the great movie character actor who was unforgettable in  John Ford‘s The Grapes of Wrath and Tobacco Road. He was, he claims, both a doctor (a surgeon) and a newspaperman. Now, he hangs around the bars with the generous Ray, drinking with him and letting Ray buy, until Ray leaves and falls drunk onto the sidewalk outisde. Then Gorman steals Ray‘s suitcase and uses it to rent a flophouse room.

The two later meet again — the film Ray is seemingly unaware that Gorman is the thief, which seems proof that the actors knew more than their characters did — and Gorman tries to coax him into more drinking. Ray, chastened at the loss of all the railroad money he saved, refuses that convivial offer and tries to rehabilitate himself. He gets some day work, stops drinking for a few days, goes to the local mission and tries to submit to the mission‘s routines and disciplines.

SPOILER ALERT

He can’t. He can’t escape the booze, which he admits is his life. Neither can Gorman, who, unlike Ray, won’t even try to work. Finally, Gorman — in an outburst of “charity” — gives Ray a few of the bills he got by stealing Ray’s suitcase and pawning it, while inventing a lie about where they came from.

END OF SPOILER

The ending of On the Bowery is full of irony, despair and humanity. So was the real-life conclusion of Rogosin‘s project. Ray, who created a sensation among the era’s film critics when On the Bowery was released (winning a best documentary Grand Prize at the Venice Film Festival), was offered a Hollywood contract. Instead he left New York and disappeared into parts unknown. Gorman, who had severe cirrhosis of the liver, was told by a doctor that, if he went on one more binge, he would die. Admonished by Rogosin to stop binge-drinking for the good of the picture, Gorman did. Then, when the shooting was finished, the old man went on another binge and died. The film is dedicated to him.

Some other superb collaborators worked with Rogosin and Bagley on On the Bowery, including the film’s jazz composer, Charles Mills, and one of the best editors of that period, Carl Lerner. (Lerner also cut 12 Angry Men) But Bagley had a sad fate. The co-writer-cinematographer, whose black and white camerawork here is a revelation of clarity, rich atmosphere and unforced feeling, was an alcoholic as well. He also died, within several years.

So, as we watch this great, tough, clear-eyed, compassionate film, we see these two men, Gorman and Ray, old and younger, in the grip of an addiction that will kill or destroy them, submitting to it (with a slight struggle, in Ray’s case, unashamedly in Gorman’s) even though they know what will probably happen to them. As does their cameraman, their eye, Bagley.

That same sense of self-destruction, and that same willingness to suffer it, is probably true for almost all the rest of men we see in the bars, indeed, for almost all the people in the film except the mission workers, the recovered alcoholics, or the passersby whom the drunks bum for quarters.

On the Bowery seems at first to be a typical low-life study, But the reality with which Ray and Gorman, and the others, endow their characters and scenes, gives the film real power. Some of  it recalls the doss house scenes in Jean Renoir‘s 1936 French film adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths. Some of it recalls the Italian neo-realist film classics, which so obviously inspired Rogosin.

This is not a cinema verite film, although parts of it are obviously improvised. It obviously has a script, a plot, a dramatic arc, and characters. Ray and Gorman know, as actors, where the scenes are going, and how to get them there.

But neither is Rogosin’s movie a conventional narrative film, conventionally organized. On the Bowery has an incredible feeling of reality, of eavesdropping on real life, but it also has the dramatic structure, rhythms and catharsis of a masterful play, which, in a way, it is.

It’s antecedents are not so much movies like Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, but the great documentaries of Robert Flaherty (Man of Aran), who also used scripted storylines and real people.  And it springs also from the vein of those post war Italian neo-realist street films by De Sica and Rossellini, films that also mixed drama and “reality,” and that also used non-professionals in their casts.

Its descendants include those great modern realistic films, from John Cassavetes’ powerful, unvarnished, often boozy dramas, to the British realist working class films of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, all of which employ improvised rehearsals or on-camera improvisation to help tell fictional stories. Cassavetes, a particular admirer of On the Bowery, once called Rogosin “probably the greatest documentary filmmaker who ever lived.”

Sadly, Rogosin died in 2000, in his 70s, after making only a few more films, including the scathing 1960 anti-Apartheid documentary Come Back, Africa and the 1964 anti-war feature Good Times, Wonderful Times, which was a pet project of philosopher Bertrand Russell.

Good Times, Wonderful Times is in this Rogosin set, along with On the Bowery — and along with  the “making of” documentaries The Perfect Team and Man’s Peril, both directed by Lionel’s son Michael Rogosin. The younger Rogosin is, with the help of the DVD company Milestone, now working on the restoration and distribution of all of his father’s filmed legacy. It’s an essential, much-needed tribute. Like Lionel Rogosin’s masterpiece On the Bowery — with its stunning views of life on the street, of men on the Bowery, and of (temporary) survival in Hell — that legacy is seemingly small, actually huge. One watches it, and weeps.

Volume One includes on Disc One: On the Bowery (U.S.: Lionel Rogosin, 1957) Four Stars. See above. With an introduction by Martin Scorsese (who grew up in Little Italy, next door to the Bowery).

Disc One Extras: Short documentary The Perfect Team: The Making of On the Bowery (U.S.: Michael Rogosin ).  Three Stars. See above. Featurette: A Walk through the Bowery (U.S.: Michael Rogosin) Three Stars. A stroll on the Bowery, above Canal Street and Chinatown, near Little Italy. Down these mean streets…

Also: Bowery Men’s Shelter (U.S.: Rhody Streeter & Tony Ganz, 1972) Three Stars. Life a few decades later, among the lost, the doomed, on the cheap. Street of Forgotten Men (U.S.: 1933). Two and a Half Stars. A view of the Bowery during the Depression. On the Bowery trailer.

Disc Two Includes Good Time, Wonderful Times (U.S.: Lionel Rogosin, 1964) Three and a Half Stars. Rogosin’d powerful Vietnam era anti-war documentary juxtaposes the pseudo-sophistication of a Swinging ’60s London party (glib chatter and medicore rock n’ roll), with horrific images of war, ranging from WWI bloodshed to the crimes of Hitler, to more modern terrors.

Disc Two extras: Out (U.S.: Lionel Rogosin, 1956). Three Stars. Life on the run with a Hungarian refugee mother, fleeing for the West with her two children. Pictures by Rogosin. Text by the novelist John Hersey (The Wall). Man’s Peril: The Making of Good Times, Wonderful Times (U.S.:   Michael Rogosin, 2008) Three Stars. Another memoir and moving tribute from son to father.

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