So much of what's being acclaimed these days in the documentary-fiction hybrids known as cinéma du réel was already present in Lionel Rogosin's 1956 film that it's a wonder that On the Bowery isn't more regularly referenced as a forerunner of the genre. A loosely fictional narrative inspired by reality, shot on location with non-professional actors, this central text of American independent cinema (its influence clearly visible, for instance, in John Cassavetes' work) has been lovingly restored to pristine conditions by the Bologna Cinematheque.
Borne out of its WWII veteran director's fervent conception of a "public service", social-realist cinema, On the Bowery is nevertheless a uniquely American tale, dealing with the underside of the American Dream of hard work as the path to success. Reminding of Steinbeck in its compassionate tone while harking back to the great Flemish painters such as Brueghel in the picturesque, intensely human rapport to bodies and faces, the film follows unemployed railroad worker Ray's (Ray Salyer) "lost weekend" (which lasts a few weeks) as he is forced into the daily struggle of the unemployed, homeless and penniless in NYC's seedy Bowery district, trying to make ends meet, hustling and jostling alongside alcoholics, small-time conmen and ex-cons who are looking to rebuild their broken lives beyond the next drink.
Rogosin's gritty sense of reality, inspired by neo-realism's sense of place (but replacing its more lyrical narrative flights with a clear-eyed, disillusioned pragmatism) is never milked for cheap sentiment or conscience-soothing grandstanding (unlike the preacher's speech at the halfway house). A debut feature of superb proficiency, its combination of precise narrative detail and impressionistic portrait of a rundown world gives it a particularly strong sense of a film anchored in a time and place that is rare even in our day and age.
ON THE BOWERY
US, 1956, 65 minutes
Starring Ray Salyer, Gorman Hendricks, Frank Matthews
Directed by Lionel Rogosin; made in collaboration with Richard Bagley and Mark Sufrin; cinematographer, Mr. Bagley (b&w, uncredited); music by Charles Mills; film editor Carl Lerner; produced by Mr. Rogosin, for Lionel Rogosin Productions
Screened December 5th 2015, Rivoli Theatre, Oporto (Porto/Post/Doc)