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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

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.


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.


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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This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin