4 Stars
Year Released: 2012
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 65 minutes
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Despite being made back in 1956, Lionel Rogosin’s study of the denizens of New York City’s skid row has not lost a shred of its ability to provoke and disturb. If anything, the film seems even more powerful today.

Shot on location (often with hidden cameras to evade suspicious police officers), “On the Bowery” blurred the lines of nonfiction filmmaking by using the homeless and alcoholic men of New York’s Bowery area in scripted situations inspired by their lives. It is a harshly tragic vision of self-destructive behavior anchored around Ray Salyer, a fortysomething laborer who arrives in the neighborhood carrying a battered suitcase and a few extra dollars that quickly disappear in a drinking binge. Salyer’s three-day odyssey in the area is depicted in his street corner attempts to locate day work, an evening visit to a Christian aid center, and seemingly endless views in the cheap bars, dingy flophouses and filthy streets where the hopeless and the homeless people seek shelter.

While the film’s force is somewhat diluted in extended dialogue sequences (the nonprofessional cast can be forgiven for their lack of comfort in acting), it nonetheless provides an invaluable record of abject poverty during an era when America was supposedly overflowing in material wealth. But although the subject is grim, “On the Bowery” is a visual treat with Richard Bagley’s strikingly handsome black-and-white cinematography – the film seems more inspired by gallery art photography than gritty neorealism. The camera clearly loved the ruggedly handsome Salyer, and his semi-autobiographical performance could have been used as his stepping-stone to a better life – he reportedly received a Hollywood contract offer based on his appearance in this film, but he turned it down and disappeared, never to be heard from again.

Fortunately, “On the Bowery” has been heard from again. Unavailable for many years, the film was handsomely restored by Italy’s Cineteca di Bologna and has enjoyed an art house theatrical revival. It is now available on DVD and Blu-ray, and this release is packed with other long-unseen Rogosin shorts that detail his career-long advocacy of human rights.

Posted on February 20, 2012 in Reviews by

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