Street Smart

Darrell Hartman on On the Bowery

Lionel Rogosin, On the Bowery, 1957, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 114 minutes.

LIONEL ROGOSIN’S On the Bowery (1957) inhabits two netherworlds: Manhattan’s storied skid row and the nascent independent American cinema. Filmed mostly in the shadows of the old Third Avenue elevated train, Rogosin’s frank depiction of proletarian down-and-outers was deplored by establishment critics of its era as dispiriting and inept, even anti-American. To watch it now, as with walking today’s Bowery, is to see it in more flattering light—in the film’s case, as a daring trip into the wrong part of town that paved the way for John Cassavetes (who singled out On the Bowery as a major influence) and countless others.

The faces in On the Bowery are far from pretty: Bristled, drawn, swollen, and dented from hard luck and probably even harder drinking, they’re portraits from what a priest in the film calls “the saddest and maddest street in the world,” and they tell the real story. The tale that Rogosin scripted with Mark Sufrin (about a railroad worker from Kentucky who drifts through and an old-timer who latches on to him) gives the film a thin plot. You can feel some of its raw poetry leeching away during the staged scenes.

Still, the spontaneous and scripted elements are remarkably integrated overall. Rogosin (who died in 2000) largely learned how to direct during shooting, and although he claimed he was “motivated by life and not by films,” On the Bowery belongs to the rough but beautiful traditions of Italian Neorealism and Robert Flaherty’s celebrated 1934 depiction of weather-beaten Irish, Man of Aran.

The footage of snarling drunks that Rogosin and his cinematographer, Richard Bagley, captured inside a raucous Bowery bar is a minor miracle, and not a pleasant one. A scene of Hogarthian urban dissolution, its sourness almost sticks to your clothes. Contrast that bedlam with the quieter mornings on the Bowery, when sacklike bodies drag themselves up off the sidewalk and slouch away, and you begin to get an idea of the sad rhythms of the gutter, a place that Rogosin had the temerity to believe 1950s America needed to see and hear.

A new 35-mm restoration of On the Bowery plays September 17–23 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.