Lionel Rogosin’s 1956-57 documentary “On the Bowery” isn’t exactly a documentary.
Using real-life denizens of the notorious Skid Row in improvised and, in some cases, staged situations, the first-time director was trying to create an American equivalent to Italian neo-realist classics like “Bicycle Thieves.”
He succeeded. “On the Bowery,” which copped an Oscar nomination for best documentary and became the first American film to receive the Grand Prize for documentary at the Venice Film Festival, is a kind of accidental masterpiece.
Rogosin graduated from Yale with a degree in chemical engineering and served in the Navy during WWII. He worked for a time in his wealthy father’s textile business but the experience of the Holocaust turned him into a filmmaker, even though he had no history with cameras.
Believing the apartheid system in South Africa to be a species of fascism, he decided to make a movie there. But to educate himself first about filmmaking, Rogosin chose the Bowery as the subject of his debut feature. (Two years later he did indeed make his South Africa film, “Come Back, Africa,” which introduced the world to Miriam Makeba).
His first choice for a screenwriter for “On the Bowery” was James Agee, who had provided the narration and dialogue for the influential 1948 Sidney Meyers’s documentary “The Quiet One.” Agee’s sudden death forced Rogosin to change course. He spent six months, without a camera, hanging out in the Bowery and making friends with the vagrants in the flophouses and bars.
All but one of the “actors” in “On the Bowery” were already acquaintances of Rogosin by the time he started filming. The exception, “Ray,” is played by Ray Salyer, an itinerant playing a character much like himself -- a Southerner just arrived from a railroad job in Jersey who quickly falls into destitution.
“On the Bowery” can be jarring. The improvised sequences have a non-actory awkwardness that often clashes with the breathtakingly sad and powerful Bowery footage caught on the sly by cinematographer Richard Bagley (a self-professed alcoholic). The images of people living at the bottom are as eloquent as anything in the history of American documentary cinema.
We see the grizzled men in the sawdust-strewn saloons, in Salvation Army shelters sleeping on newspapers on the floor, and passed out in the streets. Rogosin gives us full-on close ups of their misery and their crazed hope, too, and he does it with the utmost compassion. This is the least voyeuristic of films, and seen in the context of today’s Great Recession, it’s also disturbingly close to home.
The extras on this 2-disc Milestone DVD package (also available on Blu-Ray) include a long interview with Rogosin from the late 1990’s, shortly before his death in Los Angeles.
Perhaps this reissue will help resurrect interest in an extraordinary career, which also included ownership of the iconic Bleecker Street Cinema, a hub in the ‘60s and ‘70s for filmmakers and critics (including the teenage me).
John Cassavetes, who was greatly influenced by “On the Bowery,” once called Rogosin possibly the greatest documentary filmmaker of all time. Martin Scorsese, who provides an introduction to the Milestone reissue, also says as much.
An interview clip with TV host Dave Garroway, included in the extras, features not only Rogosin but also Salyer, who speaks confidently of his ability to handle liquor. Salyer had movie-star looks and was offered a $40,000 Hollywood contract. He turned it down, saying “there’s nothing else in life but the booze,” and later hopped a train.
He was never heard from again.
(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own).
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