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On the Bowery

Among the most important films from the post-war American independent scene are Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery and Come Back, Africa — two incredible documents of bygone eras that still resonate today. From the beginning, Rogosin’s style as an independent filmmaker was straightforward and compassionate. His films, made “from the inside” showed the subjects he chose in their normal surroundings and allowed them to speak in their own words. By choosing ordinary people caught up in universal problems — homelessness, racial discrimination, war and peace, labor relations, and poverty — Rogosin made his point poignantly. The Oscar®-nominated On the Bowery is a masterpiece of the American blend of documentary/fiction.

On the Bowery chronicles three days on New York’s skid row, the Bowery. In the early part of the 19th century, it was an elegant place of large mansions and respectable theater. When the elevated trains came in, it covered the street in darkness and the Bowery soon became known as the place for low rents and cheap drinks.

Ray is a railroad worker who drifts onto the Bowery after a long bout of laying tracks. He carries a suitcase and has a few bucks in his pocket. He’s still fairly young and strong; his face not yet ravaged by alcohol. Ray enters the Confidence Bar & Grill where he meets Gorman, an older man who likes to tell stories of his more successful bygone days. Ray falls in with Gorman and his band of drunks who help him spend all his money on muscatel. Both wanting more, Gorman suggests that Ray sells some of his possessions. Going through Ray’s suitcase, Gorman finds some clothes that they can sell at the thieves’ market. He also spots a watch in the suitcase, but Ray quickly takes it back saying that it won’t be sold. With the extra money, the pair go back to the bar. Surrounded by fellow drinkers in advanced states of alcoholic decay, Ray buys them rounds of drinks. Dead drunk, he stumbles out to the street and blacks out. Gorman helps himself to Ray’s suitcase. Here begins Ray’s decent – and his hopes to escape the Bowery one day.

Ray Salyer, the main character of the film, was a war veteran who became well-known for his role in On the Bowery and was offered parts in Hollywood movies. But deciding that drink was more important, one night he just hopped a train and was never heard from again. His fate is one of the great mysteries of cinema.

Lionel Rogosin had some success with Come Back, Africa, but his films were too gritty and tough for mainstream audiences. He died in 2000 never having really achieved the kind of success his films deserved.

In 2008, On the Bowery was selected for the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. His first three films have been restored by the Cineteca del Comune di Bologna and his other films are now currently being preserved. Lionel Rogosin, an authentic American indie, is ready to have his films seen again.