"On the Bowery" is one of those movies that will not ring a bell for most audiences, but may be recognized by true film connoisseurs. I certainly didn't know about it, and I have to thank the hard-working folks at Milestone, folks that truly love films and try to preserve some of the best ones before there are sent to oblivion. Thanks to them, we got to see restored versions of such classics as "I am Cuba," "Killer of Sheep," "Araya," and many others. Now we have the historically important and remarkable "On the Bowery," helmed by Lionel Rogosin, who was described by John Cassavettes as "probably the greatest documentary filmmaker of all time."
"On the Bowery" is one special film, in which it is a documentary, with a scripted and improvised story, and with some willingly and unwillingly unprofessional actors. Makes sense? It shouldn't, but it does. Director Rogosin tried to show to the world life at New York's Bowery area, kind of what we today refer to as skid row, an area inhibited by what appears to be unemployed men and women - mostly men --, who are either waking up each day on its street or having "breakfast" at a bar. Sadly, alcohol is the common factor. For this noble purpose, Rogolin enlisted some of the men that actually frequented the bowery. The main one, Ray Salyer, plays himself, and we see him arriving to the bowery with just a suitcase and some money; he claims to be a railroad worker. He looks fine and well-kept, and, for some reason chooses to go to a bar as his first stop. Even though he has seen and felt the evil of booze, he is weak and agrees to have a drink with some fellows that he meets in the bar. He befriends two of them, who happen to be older: Gorman Hendricks and Frank Matthews, who, like him, live day by day looking for one-day jobs and some quick money, which, sadly, will end up in the bar's cash register. The movie consists mostly on the daily activities of Ray, from the moment that he wakes up from sleeping on the street, to how he is able to get a job for a day, and getting back to the bar at the end of the day - quite a repetitive and destructive cycle. We only see Frank for about half of the film, as he mysteriously disappears. Gorman, on the other hand, is quite a character; he is dishonest, but can also have a good heart. We follow their daily struggles until the very end... almost. With good reason a pastor at a local church, which is the gate to get food and shelter for some nights, said that the Bowery was "the saddest and maddest street in the world."
"On the Bowery" is slow but it surely penetrates your soul, and, in the end, you will conclude that it is quite a powerful film. For good reason it earned an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary in 1958, and won the BAFTA Award for Best Documentary in 1957, as well as was included in the National Film Registry by the National Film Preservation Board USA in 2008. Personally, what I will mostly remember about this film is the faces and the eyes. They spoke a world about the lives at this side of the United States. I shall also mention that all three main characters had great faces for film. Salyer reminded me of a mixture of Mike Wallace with John Cassavettes, while Gorman reminded me of Keenan Wynn. It is said that Salyer was offered roles in Hollywood, but he chose to keep drinking. Gorman, on the other hand, lived enough to the end of production of the film, and Frank died somewhere in-between. Needless to say, this is one of the best movies about alcoholism that you will ever see. It will stay with you for quite some time. The wonderful two-disc Blu-ray edition includes a Martin Scorsese introduction to the film, a making-of documentary, as well a the documentaries "A Walk Through the Bowery" and "Bowery Men Shelter." It also includes "Good Times, Wonderful Times," a 1964 film by Rogosin, a making-of documentary of the movie, and much, much, more. (One the Bowery: USA, 1956, B&W, 65 min plus additional material; Good Times, Wonderful Times: USA, 1964, 69 min plus additional materials)
Reviewed on March 13, 2012 by Eric Gonzalez for Milestone Film and Video Blu-ray