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One drink over the line

Lionel Rogosin's On the Bowery exposed life on skid row, but the filmmakers had their own problems with booze



On the Bowery (1957), Lionel Rogosin's landmark film about skid row in Manhattan, was nominated for an Oscar in the category of best documentary. If the same thing happened today there would surely be an uproar, because the movie is partly scripted and staged. Rogosin, an affluent businessman making his first film, was inspired by Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief (1948) to create something of real immediacy that would blur the line between drama and documentary. Hanging around the Bowery, he recruited three down-and-outers—Ray Salyer, Gorman Hendricks, and Frank Matthews—to improvise a simple story line in which Salyer attempts to sober up and get back on his feet. Much of the screen time, however, goes to real-life footage of the Bowery's lost souls as they slug down the booze and stagger around the streets. With its harsh locations, ravaged faces, and plainspoken performances, On the Bowery galvanized a generation of New York independent filmmakers, most notably John Cassavetes.

A restored print of the movie screened a year ago at Gene Siskel Film Center, along with an excellent making-of documentary by Rogosin's son, Michael, called The Perfect Team. Now both titles have been anthologized in a two-DVD set from Milestone Film & Video, On the Bowery: The Films of Lionel Rogosin, Vol I. Though Rogosin died in 2000, The Perfect Team includes several interviews with him—one broadcast on NBC's Today Show in March 1957, when he was 33, and a few more conducted in the late 90s by film professor Marina Goldovskya—and he proves to be smart, wise, and disarmingly candid. As the video reveals, some of the filmmakers were pretty heavy drinkers themselves; they bonded with their subjects by getting blasted with them, and eventually Rogosin had to fight the drunken chaos that was his subjects' daily lot. Just as the movie dissolved the line between fact and fiction, the process of making it began to dissolve the line between the artist and his subject.

Born in 1924, Rogosin earned a degree in chemical engineering at Yale and spent three years in the navy on a minesweeper before going into his father's rayon business. In the Goldovskya interviews he remembers his eagerness to capture the real world on film: "We just came through the Holocaust, which was insane. Something's wrong. I have to find out—with my camera." Rosalind Kossoff, a noted distributor of art films, urged him to observe his subject carefully before introducing a camera into the equation, and after deciding the Bowery was a dramatic topic Rogosin spent about six months roaming the bars, missions, and flophouses of skid row. Gradually he made contact with a half-dozen men who would contribute to the film, and he'd invite them over to his Greenwich Village apartment to drink. Ray Salyer, who became the film's protagonist, was a ruggedly handsome 40-year-old from Kentucky who drifted around the country, working for the railroads; 64-year-old Gorman Hendricks, who played his antagonist, claimed to have been an MD before he took to drink.

Rogosin admits he was hitting the bottle pretty hard himself during this period, and quite naturally the collaborators he sought out were people who could relate to the subject. He went out drinking with the great writer and film critic James Agee and persuaded him to script the movie, but when he tried to follow up, he learned that Agee had died of a heart attack at age 45. Rogosin hired screenwriter Mark Sufrin after meeting him at the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village, and Sufrin persuaded him to enlist cinematographer Richard Bagley, who had shot the Oscar-nominated documentary The Quiet One (1948). "It fit like a glove for him," Rogosin recalls. "He was practically on the Bowery himself." The shoot began as pure cinema verite, but the men quickly concluded that they needed a story and hammered out a script in one evening. Using the men's real names and experiences, the movie would follow Salyer as he arrived on the Bowery, went on a drunk, cleaned up at the local rescue mission, and soon fell back into the gutter.

On the Bowery runs only 65 minutes, but by the end you can feel skid row in your bones. The credits are followed by a two-minute establishing sequence of men drunk on the street: one sleeps on the curb, his coat rolled up like a pillow; another lounges in a pushcart, leafing through a copy of Esquire; yet another tries valiantly to sit up, can't quite get his balance, and lies back down. Rogosin urged Bagley to model his imagery on Rembrandt's portraits, and in the movie the filmmakers manage to zero in on the humanity of every wrecked face. One of the more stunning sequences takes place in a mission church, where men listen impassively to a sermon in exchange for a free meal and a bed for the night; as the camera pans over them, their faces are a gallery of hardship and hopelessness. The portraiture grows frightening in the climactic bar scene, a late-night "orgy" (as Rogosin later characterized it) expertly edited by Carl Lerner (12 Angry Men): men knock back shots, drool on themselves, nod off over tables littered with empty glasses, and reel around picking fights with each other.

Set against this backdrop, the hero's desire to get off skid row couldn't seem more imperative. Ray Salyer arrives on the Bowery having earned a small stake laying railroad tracks in New Jersey, but the first thing he does is install himself at a bar and spring for a bottle to treat his newfound friends. The best of them, Gorman Hendricks, turns out to be an enemy in disguise: no sooner has Ray passed out drunk than Gorman absconds with his suitcase. The arc of this compromised friendship is the real heart of the movie; Gorman isn't so much a bad man as one who refuses to believe either of them is any good. At the end of the movie, when Ray wants to leave town and build up another stake in Chicago, Gorman snaps, "I've only said that about a thousand times." The younger man replies, "You've got me by a couple of yearsI've only said it about eight hundred."

The most striking scenes in On the Bowery may be those in the mission, not only for the haunting montage described above but also for two vivid minor characters: the minister giving the nightly sermon and the jaded mission supervisor. They're real people too, and clearly they needed no rehearsal. Reverend George L. Bolton identifies himself as a former drunkard who's spent the last 28 years "endeavoring to tell men that there are no hopeless cases with God." None of them "started out with a life ambition to end up in a drunkard's grave. And yet that might happen to some person here, this very day." His lilting voice is soon dispelled by the no-nonsense cadences of the supervisor, who informs the men that, in order to get a bed, they'll have to stay in all night, take a bath, shave, and clean their clothes. "Now listen, when you come in here, you leave the booze outside!" he orders. "Forget all about Sneaky Pete. He's a thing of the past with you. When you come in here, stay sober!" After the promised beds run out and the remaining men begin spreading newspaper on the floor, Ray balks and returns to the bar.

Rogosin, Sufrin, and Bagley started shooting in July 1955 and continued for three months, the project complicated by the challenges of making a movie on the streets of New York City, dealing with police, coaxing performances from amateur actors, and handling extras who were drinking. Gorman Hendricks was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and told that another binge would kill him, though he promised Rogosin to stay sober for the shoot. The director fell into the habit of eating dinner every night with Bagley, drinking with him until 4 AM, and then shooting the next morning. "I was always alright," Rogosin claims. "He was drinking an awful lot, and he wasn't so strong. And so he was very shaky." Around this time, Rogosin reveals, he dreamed he was alcoholic. "I woke up later and thought, 'Oh my God. I've gotta be careful. . . . I can't get sucked into this vortex with all the others.'" Vortex was right: after the shoot ended Hendricks went on a bender that killed him, and Bagley would die six years later at age 41.

On the Bowery would go on to become Rogosin's most famous film, though he completed several more projects (the new DVD set includes Out, about Hungarian refugees in Austria, and the feature-length antiwar film Good Times, Wonderful Times) and for many years operated the Bleecker Street Cinema in Greenwich Village. A compassionate man, he took responsibility for the men he'd pulled off the street to help him. He saved Hendricks from a drunkard's grave by paying for his burial in Linden, New Jersey. Gerda Lerner, the widow of editor Carl Lerner, relates in The Perfect Team that Rogosin considered Ray Salyer a natural actor and offered to pay for his rehabilitation. Salyer received several offers but couldn't handle the responsibility; in the end he hopped a freight train and was never heard from again. For Lionel Rogosin, who wanted to use his camera to find out what was wrong with the world, the hardest thing about filmmaking may have been knowing when to yell cut.

Related Film

On the Bowery

Director: Lionel Rogosin

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