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On the Bowery: Wikis


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On the Bowery
Directed by Lionel Rogosin
Produced by Lionel Rogosin
Written by Mark Sufrin (uncredited)
Starring Gorman Hendricks, Frank Matthews, Ray Salyer
Music by Charles Mills
Cinematography Richard Bagley (uncredited)
Editing by Carl Lerner
Release date(s) 1956
Running time 65 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Followed by Come Back, Africa (1960)

On the Bowery is a 1956 documentary film directed by Lionel Rogosin. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.[1]

After the Second World War Lionel Rogosin made a vow to fight fascism and racism wherever he found it. In 1954 he left the family business (Beaunit Mills-American Rayon Corp.) in order to make films in accordance with his ideals. As he needed experience, he looked around for a subject and was struck by the men on the Bowery and decided that this would make a strong film. Thus On the Bowery was to be Rogosin's provocative film school that would prepare him for the filming of his anti apartheid film: Come Back, Africa (1960).

In 2008, On the Bowery was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".



Greatly influenced by Robert Flaherty and the Italian neo-realist tradition, Rogosin submerged himself on the Bowery for many months before filming. He got to know the street and the men intimately, befriending a Bowery man: Gorman Hendricks. Together they wandered through the Bowery for several months until Rogosin started filming himself with a hidden camera. Not satisfied with the result he then hired a commercial crew but decided that these attempts were not satisfactory. At this time he was living in New York City’s Greenwich Village and he frequently went to the White Horse Tavern where he met writer Mark Sufrin and cinematographer Dick Bagley (recently part of the crew of Sydney Myers The Quiet One). They got along right away and agreed to work with Rogosin. Shooting began with no script or story in July of 1955. The first rushes were not working well, so that Rogosin, Sufrin and Bagley worked out a simple script based on the lives of the Bowery men.

In July of 1955 Rogosin and his crew started filming. With these Bowery men, Rogosin quickly developed his own method of creating dialogue and improvisation. The filming continued through October 1955 in a grueling schedule of long days and late nights. When the film was finished the first edit with editor Helen Levitt did not meet Rogosin’s approval and he solicited the help of Carl Lerner. Lerner was instrumental in pulling the film together according to Rogosin’s vision and acted as a mentor and editor as Rogosin learned this aspect his craft.

All throughout, the film looks hard at that which we’re accustomed from to turning away. . It is a film of indelible portraiture and the atmosphere is palpable: the Rheingold on tap, the raw onions in the beards, the piss-soaked trousers... In spite of strong political opinions, Rogosin set out to make a film without judgment and with deep humanity to create a work that blurs the boundaries between documentary and fiction by utilizing unscripted, improvised scenes and rehearsed and scripted ones. ...


The film chronicles three desperate days in a then impoverished lower Manhattan neighborhood, New York's skid row: the Bowery. It is the story of Ray, a railroad worker, who drifts on to the Bowery to have a drunken spree after a long bout of laying tracks and then falls in with a band of drunks who help him spend his money. Ray, the" new guy on the Bowery" whose biceps still fill out his sleeves, looks preoccupied as he enters the "Confidence Bar & Grill". Surrounded by various alcoholics in advanced states of decay he buys them rounds of drinks then blacks out on his first night and wakes up to discover that his suitcase has been stolen .The thief will become the closest thing to a friend ...and just like that, Ray embarks on a trip to hell, becoming part of the Bowery. In a series of Beckettian portraits, the protagonists, congregations of winos, listless listeners, blubber through numerous bar scenes, games of dominos around a flophouse stove and a sermon at the Bowery Mission. Will Ray find his way out of this uncaring urban jungle?


  • Ray Salyer, the lead character in the film, was offered a Hollywood contract but chose to remain on the Bowery.
  • Gordon Hendricks kept himself alive in order to finish the film and died weeks after the opening. Rogosin helped both men and took care of Hendricks burial.


  • Dick Bagley died at 41 years of age several years after the film was finished.
  • Mark Sufrin went on to a long and fruitful writing career as a biographer.
  • Carl Lerner edited Rogosin’s second film Come Back, Africa and went on to a long career as a renowned editor.
  • Darwin Deen, Assistant Cameraman and Second Camera Operator went on to become President of Local 600, the Cinematographers Guild of New York.


In September 1956, Rogosin became the first American director to win the Best Documentary award at the Venice Film Festival with “On The Bowery." Attacked by Bosley Crowther in the New York Times and shunned by the American Ambassador to Italy Claire Boothe Luce at the Venice Festival, Rogosin found support with the Flaherty family and many favorable reviews. Goi, his work in kin with their movement. In 1957k, “On the Bowery” opened at the 55street Playhouse in New York and was nominated for an Academy Award. Despite this success, distribution was extremely difficult. With On The Bowery, Rogosin became one of the founding fathers in the development of Independent cinema in America, along with Sydney Myers and Morris Engel. On the Bowery would become an influence to many future independent filmmakers worldwide.

“..a film made from the inside...In the bars and on the sidewalks, the camera leans sympathetically across table or grating towards these men and women who have passed the point of no return, and have reached a hideous sort of happiness achieved at best by gin and whiskey, and at worst by a shared squeeze from a can of metal polish. We are with these people and we hear what they say. And Rogosin insists that we must love them; he seems to say, with Dostoyevsky, “the sense of their own degradation is as essential to those reckless unbridled natures as the sense of their own generosity.” —Basil Wright, Sight and Sound

“...brilliantly revealing photography by Richard Bagley matched to the patient, thoughtful construction and organization of director-producer Lionel Rogosin and writer Mark Sufrin...what stays in your mind permanently, striking you like a hammer when you first see it, is the face of the Bowery...the caked filth, the stubble beard, the clothes of eternity, the physical weakness and the shambling walk, and the unmistakable brand of liquor...” —Arthur Winston, New York Post

“ extraordinary, agonizing document...filled with an overwhelming sense of veracity and an unvoiced compassion for the men who have surrendered their dignity for a drink” —Arthur Knight, Saturday Review

“This film- without the pity that secretly insults, without the disgust that indirectly compliments- studies its subjects with honest human interest, tries to see what they see in their lives, tries to find what they find in the bottom of the bottle.” —Time Magazine


  • Grand Prize in the Documentary and short film Category, Venice Film Festival, 1956
  • British Film Academy Award, “The Best Documentary of 1956”
  • The Robert Flaherty Award -1957
  • Nominated for an Academy Award 1957
  • Gold Medal Award, Sociological Convention, University of Pisa 1959
  • Selected as one of the “Ten Best Movies of Ten Years Between 1950-59”
  • by Richard Griffith , Museum of Modern Art Film Library
  • Festival of Popoli, 1971


"Making 'On the Bowery' taught me a method of molding reality into a form that could touch the imagination of others. The total reality of a community or a society is so vast that any attempt to detail its entirety would result in nothing more than a meaningless catalogue of stale, factual representation—-a result which I call ‘documentary.’ Flaherty’s great work has no more to do with ‘documentary’ than great poetry has to do with the factual report of a sociologist." Lionel Rogosin

“To tell the truth as you see it, incidentally, is not necessarily the truth. To tell the truth as someone else sees it is, to me, much more important and enlightening. Some documentaries are fantastic. Like Lionel Rogosin’s pictures, for instance; like “On the Bowery”. This is a guy who’s probably the greatest documentary filmmaker of all time, in my opinion.” John Cassavetes

“On The Bowery” was restored in 2006 from the original negatives by the Cineteca di Bologna and the laboratory L’Immagine Ritrovato, in cooperation with Rogosin Heritage Inc.


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