About the Film
On The Bowery was the first of Lionel Rogosin’s award-winning films, garnering the Grand Prize for Documentary at the 1956 Venice Film Festival, the British Award for Best Documentary and nomination for an Oscar® as best documentary.
From the beginning, Rogosin’s style as an independent filmmaker was straightforward and compassionate. His films were made “from the inside,” showing subjects in their normal surroundings and allowing them to speak in their own words. By choosing ordinary people caught up in universal problems — homelessness, racial discrimination, war and peace, labor strife, and poverty — Rogosin made his point poignantly. Interestingly, he chose the Bowery and its inhabitants as his first subject — intending to reveal the reality of people who were drinking away their lives in an attempt to escape from it.
At the famed White Horse Tavern (just around the corner from Rogosin’s apartment at 96 Perry Street), Rogosin met Mark Sufrin, a young Greenwich Village writer. Sufrin had just come back from working on documentaries in Israel and he became excited about working with Rogosin. The director described Sufrin as a “highly intelligent, freelance writer, aggressive and volatile, full of ingenious ideas.” Sufrin convinced Rogosin to hire another White Horse Tavern regular, talented cameraman Richard Bagley, who had shot Sidney Meyer’s The Quiet One. Written by James Agee, with contributions by Helen Leavitt and Janice Loeb, it signaled the birth of a new cinema that soon included the likes of Morris Engel (The Little Fugitive) and Rogosin.
They discovered their main character, a forty-year-old itinerant railroad worker by the name of Ray Salyer, who had just turned up on the Bowery after a drunken weekend. Still fairly young looking but weathered by the years, he was the perfect combination of a man perpetually down on his luck but not yet totally lost.
For the other character they chose Gorman Hendricks, a longtime Bowery mainstay who claimed he had once worked for the Washington Herald. During Rogosin’s early wanderings through the Bowery, Hendricks had been his guide. Grizzled and in bad health, Hendricks still had a glint in his eye and an intelligence behind it.
Although the plot was to cover a three-day period in the life of the character, the actual shooting took place from July to October of 1955. While some scenes were staged, the rest of the film was shot in an early cinéma vérité style, recording the action on the streets and in the bars and the Bowery flophouses.