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Movie Review

On the Bowery

‘On the Bowery,’ a portrait of lost souls: Restored film still resonates 50 years later

Ray Salyer (left, with Frank Matthews) plays a down-and-out laborer in “On the Bowery.’’ Ray Salyer (left, with Frank Matthews) plays a down-and-out laborer in “On the Bowery.’’ (© 2010 Milestone Films)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / February 4, 2011

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In the mid-1950s, Lionel Rogosin was a young, Yale-educated minesweeper in the US Navy. He wanted to make a movie about apartheid in South Africa but knew very little about moviemaking. To teach himself, he began spending time on the Lower East Side’s Bowery, which, as it stagnated in the shadows of the El train, became New York City’s skid row. Eventually, Rogosin gathered a crew and, using the loosest of scripts, began to film the story of a Kentucky arriviste, looking for a day’s work before he pushes off for new labor.

The resulting film, “On the Bowery,’’ opened in American art houses in 1956, won the grand prize for documentary at the Venice Film Festival and received an Academy Award nomination in the documentary-feature category (it lost, in 1957, to a German film about Albert Schweitzer). Then, as these things are wont to happen, it largely receded from the movie-going consciousness. Three years later, Rogosin, who died in 2000, made his apartheid movie (“Come Back, Africa’’), paid for the refurbishment of the movie theater that would become the Bleecker Street Cinema, and helped found the New American Cinema Group, which prized the abandonment of structural conventions.

Time and a fair amount of academic attention have bestowed the glow of legend upon “On the Bowery.’’ It’s not a movie that comes up readily in casual discussions of great or seminal American independent moviemaking. But directors like John Cassavetes are on the record as champions of both it and Rogosin, who was widely adored as a singular sort of truth-teller.

Fifty years after its initial release, “On the Bowery’’ was restored and now is being released by Milestone Films. It’s a quiet event but one that ought to change the conversation about the film and its maker, chiefly by making them a part of the conversation once again. In learning how to make a film on the job, all Rogosin wanted to achieve was both a film as good as those made by Robert Flaherty (mission accomplished) and an American work of Italian neorealism (ditto). Shot on 16mm in black-and-white with a Bolex camera, the results remain stunningly authentic.

The fleeting sights seen in “On the Bowery’’ constitute documentary observation. Men sleep in pushcarts, in shop doorways, and on the sidewalk. They gather in the neighborhood bars. One afternoon, Ray Salyer enters a watering hole and is gradually ensnared by Bowery life. Salyer plays a version of himself, a classically handsome laborer (he’s arrived in New York after a stint doing rail work in New Jersey). His leading-man carriage and superhero jaw line provide the “before’’ image to the dozens of tragic “afters’’ whose less conventionally camera-ready faces Rogosin presents in a flurry of absorbing close-ups. This is the sort of truth Rogosin has been praised for telling.

Salyer spends what little money he has on beer for himself and his new friends, including Gorman Hendricks, a likable if untrustworthy codger who claims to have worked in medicine and at the Washington Herald. Hendricks steals an important piece of someone else’s property earning Rogosin his desired connection with Vittorio De Sica’s pioneering neorealist feat “The Bicycle Thief,’’ from 1948.

According to a short documentary by Rogosin’s son Michael that the Coolidge Corner Theatre is showing along with the film, Rogosin’s other aim was to capture the men of the Bowery in the way Rembrandt made portraits. It’s astonishing how much the faces in the paintings match those in the film. You also think occasionally about certain scenarios out of Norman Rockwell. But the movie is often an exquisite work of framing that evokes the loneliness and starkness of Edward Hopper. Drinking made the movie’s director of photography, Richard Bagley, something of a mess. But his eye for capturing the simple everydayness of Bowery life is sharp throughout. His close-ups are especially phenomenal — Rembrandt on the one hand, Works Progress Administration on the other.

The Bowery is now a stark boulevard with a Whole Foods, an art museum, restaurant supply stores, and boutiques. The neighborhood began to thrive only after the razing of the Third Avenue El began in 1955. The winos and homeless that filled its streets and flop houses now seem like ghosts of a bygone, massively gentrified Manhattan. It’s possible that for the most part they headed west to San Francisco and Vancouver where this movie’s street scenes are still regular occurrences. A resurgent “On the Bowery’’ evokes a continuum.

Of course, all this talk of long faces, indigence, and drunkenness disserves the movie’s sense of life. It crackles with screwball energy. There are enough big, loud, antic moments (drunks being tossed out of the bar, say) to suggest that certain comedies of the era — and films well before it — should be reconsidered works of realism. These men were living Dicky Eklund’s life decades before Christian Bale. But their commitment to alcoholism was beyond hope. Hendricks went on a drinking binge upon the completion of shooting and was dead within a month. Salyer allegedly turned down a $40,000 contract to act in Hollywood movies.

In 1957, he explained to the Associated Press why he rejected the offer. “They’ve tried to straighten me out. But I don’t want to be straightened out,’’ Salyer said, with poetic damnation, in an item that appears in a 1957 public-health anthology published by Stanford University Press. “We’re all like that on the Bowery, lost and no one will find us. We don’t have the will to struggle for comfort. We don’t want love. We don’t ask for money. We don’t complain against fate. We don’t even hope for salvation. We only seek oblivion so that we can forget all the things we don’t even remember. Just see that I have a few bucks for the wine, eh? Spend that $40,000 on somebody who can use it.’’

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/wesley_morris.

ON THE BOWERY Directed by: Lionel Rogosin

At: Coolidge Corner

Running time: 64 minutes

Unrated

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