REVIEW: 'On the Bowery' ★★★★

American post-war realism sprang from a New York slum

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'On the Bowery'

Ray Salyer plays Ray, a down-and-out day laborer living his days on the street in "On the Bowery." (Milestone Film)

This week the Gene Siskel Film Center begins a 14-part retrospective of street-level, purely American poetic-realist cinema spanning five different decades and too many different sensibilities to fit into any one box.

First up in the program called "The American New Wave" is a 1957 landmark of the documentary/narrative hybrid: "On the Bowery," Lionel Rogosin's 65-minute gem, shot in the New York neighborhood's lower depths. School of the Art Institute professor Bruce Jenkins will provide some context for this remarkable work, as he begins his Tuesday lecture series.

Filmmaker Rogosin was not the first to bend the documentary form to fit a prescribed narrative structure (Robert Flaherty's "Nanook of the North," among others, beat him to the punch by a generation). But in 1956, when Rogosin and his colleagues took their camera down to the lowest of the low-rent Skid Row district in Manhattan, they came back with a startling and influential hybrid.

"On the Bowery" offers some of the most indelible faces in an American docudrama, faces ravaged by alcohol and poverty, creased by defeat and self-deception, surrounded by a New York City that does not care. Yet no one on screen asks for pity. The lightly inscribed plot concerns Ray, played by Ray Salyer, who turned down Hollywood offers after the film's initial release only to disappear soon afterward. He's back in town after working on the railroad. His drinking companion, Gorman (Gorman Hendricks), is both friend and exploiter.

As Rogosin follows these two in and out of saloons and their respective ways of making a few bucks, the images captured by the camera — of mid-century Bowery life and its dogged inhabitants — reveal clear links to postwar neorealism. The streets and poverty could have come from "Germany Year Zero," Roberto Rossellini's masterwork. But this is an all-American movie, not without pretensions (composer Charles Mills' use of the harpsichord seems off) but full of harsh beauty.

"Nuthin' gained, nuthin' lost," says one man to another as they exit the Bowery tavern in search of enough money to get them through another day. Near the end, Ray swears he'll quit drinking yet again and wonders if he should hop a freight to Chicago for his "last stand." This film exerted a strong grip on the imaginations of everyone from John Cassavetes to Martin Scorsese to Kent Mackenzie, whose 1961 film "The Exiles," no less vivid, is the LA bookend to this New York story. As for Cassavetes, he responded to the freedom and grit of "On the Bowery" with his own 1959 picture "Shadows," which plays next week at the Film Center.

"On the Bowery" plays at 6 p.m. Friday and Tuesday at the Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St. Running time: 1:15. Showing with the 1948 James Agee/Helen Levitt/Janice Loebshort "In the Street."

 

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