IT'S PROBABLY NOT possible for me to fully appreciate the impact Lionel Rogosin's On the Bowery must have made in 1956. A documentary of sorts that focuses its unblinking eye on the bums and winos of Manhattan's down-and-out Bowery thoroughfare, the film is mostly striking—to this unappreciative viewer, at least—as a transparently false documentary. All of the scenes with dialogue seem (badly) staged, and the non-actors are almost irretrievably wooden in their non-acting.
It's good, then, that Cinema 21's revival of On the Bowery—now in a clean new print that draws attention to the drab, unromantic look of the picture—is accompanied by The Perfect Team: The Making of On the Bowery, a 40-minute documentary about the film. We learn that Rogosin, heavily influenced by Italian neorealism, had a keen vision for what initially seems to be an aimless movie. We learn that the two main characters, Gorman Hendricks and Ray Salyer, met either unhappy or mysterious ends: Hendricks immediately went on a drinking binge at the conclusion of On the Bowery's shooting and quickly died, while Salyer was offered a $40,000 Hollywood contract, which he declined in favor of staying on the Bowery and slowly drinking himself to death. He was last seen hopping on a freight train and was never heard from again.
The fabricated plot of On the Bowery follows the day-to-day lives of these two, after Salyer returns to the neighborhood after an extended absence. He rekindles a friendship with the older Hendricks, but the old man steals Salyer's paltry belongings while they're both in a drunken stupor. They go in and out of bars, sleep on pavements, and briefly think about quitting drinking. It's all filmed in a powdery black and white, set against the unremittingly awful backdrop of the Bowery. The interchangeable flophouses each have identical facades, even down to the matching signs. Inside, the gloomy rooms are separated by chicken wire. Meanwhile, the barebones taverns are unglamorous and full of sawdust; the streets are unforgiving and filthy. Even the booze looks unappealing: tiny tumblers of Rheingold; musty-looking whiskey; even the alcohol from a can of Sterno is consumed.
On the Bowery wasn't meant to be entertainment at the time, and it still isn't; its cinematic landmark status seems assured, and there will be those who should want to see it for that reason alone. The rest of us will probably just need a drink.