Walk through the Bowery today and you’ll see a few homeless folks, along with boutique retail stores, hipster bars, and a tourist trap or two. If you’d strolled down the same Lower East Side section in 1957, you’d have found yourself in the skid row to end all skid rows, a boulevard unmatched for broken dreams. This is where Ray (Salyer), an itinerant railroad worker, prowls in search of three hots and a cot (plus a cheap bottle of muscatel to share with his fellow “bums”). And it’s the area that filmmaker Lionel Rogosin—following nonprofessional actors as they meander through real-life flophouses, sawdust-floored taverns and Catholic missions—visited to chronicle the flip side of Eisenhower-era prosperity with an unsparing eye.
Both an invaluable New York time capsule and a searing piece of celluloid journalism, On the Bowery remains a definitive portrait of the nation’s down-and-out in their natural habitat; only Walker Evans’s dust-bowl pictorials and Robert Frank’s The Americans come close to matching its hard-faced, gin-blossomed desperation. Having spent months researching downtown’s derelicts (recalled in The Perfect Team, the 45-minute doc accompanying Film Forum’s revival), Rogosin had a feel for the rhythms of life on the streets. For every admittedly stilted line reading, there are off-the-cuff moments that are sickeningly eloquent: the early-morning stirrings of doorway slumberers, a man reading Esquire on a junk cart, a beer-soaked barroom reverie. The Bowery’s reign as ground zero for drinkers and drifters may be history, but more than a half century later, the film still hits you in the gut like a shot of two-bit hooch.—David Fear