5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
I am 63 years old, and the product of an alcoholic father. Though it skipped me in some ways--I am not addicted to the usual substances or behaviors--addiction has had a devastating effect on my life. My daughter was in the throes of drug and alcohol addiction for ten years, from age 13 until 23. This caused untold pain and misery in our family.
I am also a movie fanatic. I've seen literally thousands of movies. In particular I admire and deeply appreciate documentary films, because they show us reality, and, more than fiction films, they have the power to influence our thoughts and actions. They often shine a light into the dark corners of this world. This is such a film. I watched it last night on Turner Classics. I was astounded. I am embarrassed and reluctant to admit it, but prior to last night, I had never heard of Lionel Rogosin. Based upon this single film, I would rate him as one of the greatest filmmakers of all-time. This is a truly singular, extraordinary piece of work, simply amazing. It is tremendously sad and moving, frightening film, because while I watched it I could not help but think "there but for the grace of God."
There was a movie made years ago called The Exiles which came close to this. Then there is the monumental Eugene O'Neill play, The Iceman Cometh, which could have inspired, or was inspired by, this film.
Rogosin lived and drank with these alcoholic men of NYC's Bowery for many months, his aim being to befriend the men and to be accepted by them. I am sure he bought plenty of drinks in this time. None of these guys were actors; they were real people, real 'winos' and boozers who lived on those mean streets. They got so used to him that when he started filming them, they didn't bat an eye. No doubt he came up with a 'story', and discussed it with the three guys who are featured in the movie. Every cent that came into their hands ended up in the hands of the bartenders or cashiers who manned the dives and liquor stores in that seedy district. The main character, Ray Salyer, is a tall, lanky youngish fellow, a good-looking guy who had a kind of Gary Cooper/Henry Fonda quality to him. After the movie on TCM, host Robert Osborne said that this chap was actually offered a $40K acting gig by a studio, but he turned it down, saying that booze was the only thing he cared about. Ironically at the end of the film, his character actually turns down a drink, saying that he intends to get cleaned up and get a job. Gorman, the older white-haired man who swipes Ray's suitcase, died of cirrhosis before the film was even released.
The movie is full of fantastic scenes, but of course, absolutely none of them are what you would call uplifting. You sit there in open-mouthed amazement, in a way, like looking at a train wreck or a burning building. It has been beautifully restored and the glorious black and white images of old NYC are simply incredible. Nothing like this has ever been done. But the truly amazing images are those faces....craggy, wrinkled, battered, ravaged by alcohol and beatings, lack of food and care, from sleeping rough on cold concrete. These poor men are sons and husbands and fathers, many no doubt WWII vets, and they are on a slow path to death and destruction. For them, the numbness of that boozy high is the be-all and end-all. But the sad saga repeats itself day after day.
The movie takes place over three days, presumably in the summer, which makes you wonder how these poor fellows survived in the cold months. One incredible scene actually shows, in close-up detail, the legendary process of straining Sterno--canned heat--through an old sock, then drinking it. That could not have been good for your health. These guys were so alcohol addicted that they would have done liquid shoe polish, rubbing alcohol, radiator fluid, you name it. Like many homeless alcoholics, there is a preference but mostly a compulsion for the cheapest drunk possible, and so, cheap, fortified wines like Muscatel and White Port are a good route to getting 'comfortably numb'.
I've known men like this. Most of them are long dead. They 'chose' booze over family, job, home. This is a cautionary tale. I have always been very careful about drinking, because of what it did to my father, who died of cirrhosis, as did his sister. My paternal grandparents, my daughter, my sister and brother and several nephews have all been hit by "The Curse". I never drink alone, and when I drink, I have one or two beers. That's it. I go to a church which is full of alcoholics and addicts. I am going to recommend that we show this film. It is that powerful.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Carlos E. Velasquez
- Published on Amazon.com
"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