After the Second World War Lionel Rogosin made a vow to fight fascism and racism wherever he found it. In 1954 he left the family business (Beaunit Mills-American Rayon Corp.) in order to make films in accordance with his ideals. As he needed experience, he looked around for a subject and was struck by the men on the Bowery and decided that this would make a strong film. Thus On the Bowery was to be Rogosin's provocative film school that would prepare him for the filming of his anti-apartheid film: Come Back, Africa (1960).
The film chronicles three desperate days in a then impoverished lower Manhattan neighborhood, New York's skid row: the Bowery. It is the story of Ray (Ray Salyer), a railroad worker, who drifts on to the Bowery to have a drunken spree after a long bout of laying tracks and then falls in with a band of drunks who help him spend his money.
Ray, the "new guy on the Bowery," whose biceps still fill out his sleeves, looks preoccupied as he enters the "Confidence Bar & Grill". Surrounded by various alcoholics in advanced states of decay, he buys them rounds of drinks, then blacks out on his first night, and wakes up to discover that his suitcase has been stolen.
The thief (Gorman Hendricks) becomes the closest thing he has to a friend...and just like that, Ray embarks on a trip to hell, becoming part of the Bowery. In a series of Beckettian portraits, the protagonists, congregations of winos, listless listeners, blubber through numerous bar scenes, games of dominos around a flophouse stove, and a sermon at the Bowery Mission.
Greatly influenced by Robert Flaherty and Italian neorealism tradition, Rogosin submerged himself on the Bowery for many months before filming. He got to know the street and the men intimately, befriending a Bowery man: Gorman Hendricks. Together they wandered through the Bowery for several months until Rogosin started filming himself with a hidden camera. Not satisfied with the result he then hired a commercial crew but decided that these attempts were not satisfactory.
At this time he was living in New York City's Greenwich Village and he frequently went to the White Horse Tavern where he met writer Mark Sufrin and cinematographer Dick Bagley (recently part of the crew of Sydney Myers The Quiet One). They got along right away and agreed to work with Rogosin. Shooting began with no script or story in July 1955. The first rushes were not working well, so that Rogosin, Sufrin and Bagley worked out a simple script based on the lives of the Bowery men.
In July 1955 Rogosin and his crew started filming. At this time the Third Ave El had ceased running on May 12 but demolition of that section had not yet started so the dark shadows the El cast on the Bowery were still present, adding to the dingy atmosphere. With these Bowery men, Rogosin quickly developed his own method of creating dialogue and improvisation.
The filming continued through October 1955 in a grueling schedule of long days and late nights. When the film was finished the first edit with editor Helen Levitt did not meet Rogosin's approval and he solicited the help of Carl Lerner.
Lerner was instrumental in pulling the film together according to Rogosin's vision, and he acted as mentor and editor, as Rogosin learned this aspect of his craft.Ray Salyer, the lead character in the film, was offered a Hollywood contract but chose to remain on the Bowery. Salyer was one of nine children born to a Methodist minister in Kentucky and raised in North Carolina. He had a twin brother named Roy, and at least one child also named Ray. Salyer reportedly died on October 6, 1963, in New York City. He is buried in North Carolina.
Gorman Hendricks died weeks before the film opened. Rogosin helped both men and took care of Hendricks' burial.
Carl Lerner edited Rogosin's second film Come Back, Africa
Darwin Deen, Assistant Cameraman and Second Camera Operator
In September 1956, Rogosin became the first American director to win the Best Documentary award at the Venice Film Festival with On The Bowery. Attacked by Bosley Crowther in the New York Times and shunned by the American Ambassador to Italy Clare Boothe Luce at the Venice Festival, Rogosin found support with the Flaherty family and many favorable reviews. In 1957, On the Bowery opened at the 55th Street Playhouse in New York, and was nominated for an Academy Award. Despite this success, distribution was extremely difficult. With On The Bowery, Rogosin became one of the founding fathers in the development of independent cinema in America, along with Sydney Myers and Morris Engel. On the Bowery would become an influence to many future independent filmmakers worldwide.
“..a film made from the inside...In the bars and on the sidewalks, the camera leans sympathetically across table or grating towards these men and women who have passed the point of no return, and have reached a hideous sort of happiness achieved at best by gin and whiskey, and at worst by a shared squeeze from a can of metal polish. We are with these people and we hear what they say. And Rogosin insists that we must love them; he seems to say, with Dostoyevsky, “the sense of their own degradation is as essential to those reckless unbridled natures as the sense of their own generosity.” —Basil Wright, Sight and Sound
“...brilliantly revealing photography by Richard Bagley matched to the patient, thoughtful construction and organization of director-producer Lionel Rogosin and writer Mark Sufrin...what stays in your mind permanently, striking you like a hammer when you first see it, is the face of the Bowery...the caked filth, the stubble beard, the clothes of eternity, the physical weakness and the shambling walk, and the unmistakable brand of liquor...” —Arthur Winston, New York Post
“...an extraordinary, agonizing document...filled with an overwhelming sense of veracity and an unvoiced compassion for the men who have surrendered their dignity for a drink” —Arthur Knight, Saturday Review
“This film, without the pity that secretly insults, without the disgust that indirectly compliments, studies its subjects with honest human interest, tries to see what they see in their lives, tries to find what they find in the bottom of the bottle.” —Time
Milestone Films released On the Bowery on DVD and Blu-ray in 2012.Grand Prize in the Documentary and short film Category, Venice Film Festival, 1956
British Film Academy Award, “The Best Documentary of 1956”
The Robert Flaherty Award 1957
Nominated for an Academy Award 1957
Gold Medal Award, Sociological Convention, University of Pisa 1959
Selected as one of the “Ten Best Movies of Ten Years Between 1950-59” by Richard Griffith, Museum of Modern Art Film Library
Festival of Popoli, 1971