The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest English-Language Films list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis
There is a through-story in Lionel Rogosin’s otherwise documentary On the Bowery, and its precise accumulation is like a first-rate short story by Ring Lardner or Ernest Hemingway. Ray drifts into New York’s skid row, accompanied by his suitcase, which contains all his earthly possessions, including a pocket watch. Gorman, an older man, convinces Ray to part with clothes—the watch is off-limits—in order to pay for drinks for the both of them. When Ray passes out in the street, Gorman takes the suitcase, thus paying for himself a night in a flop-house rather than on the street. He sells the watch, giving Ray some of the proceeds, making up a story about the money’s source.
Rogosin’s tone is nonjudgmental. In peerless black-and-white images, Rogosin captures the raucous, loose-ended lives of (mostly) men in Bowery bars, streets, a mission, a flop-house. The documentary and fictional elements seamlessly blend to create a penetrating series of observations—a piece of reportage anticipating cinéma-vérité, not to mention the documentary-styled fictions of John Cassavetes, who acknowledged Rogosin as his cinematic guide.
The richest aspect of this beautiful film is its embrace of down-on-their-luck humanity. In this, Rogosin may be indebted to John Huston, whose own later Fat City (1972) seems especially in tune with Rogosin’s film.
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