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Saturday, January 30, 2016

ON THE BOWERY (1956)

Though generally spoken of as a documentary (and internationally awarded or nominated as such), Lionel Rogosin’s unusual film is no such thing. Standing somewhere between the orchestrated/reenacted semi-documentaries of the pioneering Robert Flaherty, and the on-the-streets Italian Neo-Realist style, Rogosin made a scripted drama on terms a documentarian would have recognized, but cast his story, bent his tale and shaped dialogue to fit a well researched, but preconceived dramatic arc. Antecedents include director/lenser Morris Engel’s LITTLE FUGITIVE/’53, a gentle alter-ego of NYC neighborhood street-life, or even the Merian Cooper/Ernest Schoedsack’s jungle-set exotic wonder CHANG/’27, a Kiplingesque family fable largely filmed with documentary techniques. Rogosin focuses on a couple of Bowery types: the habitual panhandler who’ll never leave; and the new guy on the block who thinks he can still see a sober way out. Largely character driven, and loaded with priceless actuality grabs, a noticeable verbal deadness rises whenever the leading players need to hit set up lines to move things along or make a specific point. What ends up holding your attention is the pic's striking, portraiture-heavy lensing from the little known Richard Bagley. Like thumbing thru a special ‘On Skid Row’ edition of LIFE or LOOK magazine. And in the film’s main subject, Ray Salyer, an endlessly photogenic 'found' leading man with the sort of road-to-ruination grace & looks of jazz legend Chet Baker. (Real-life alcoholic actor Dana Andrews an even closer physical match.) Tellingly, none of the film’s creatives left much of a post-BOWERY trace; which helps explain this film’s real, if over-inflated legend.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Heavily influenced by the film, John Cassavettes swapped out the gauche, ultra-naturalistic non-professional acting of Rogosin’s Bowery bums for the studied, showy pseudo-realism of his Method Acting pals, adding a deadly note of ‘vanity project’ to the formless repetition & peer critique role playing that pass for depth in too many of his films.

DOUBLE-BILL: Check out the Bowery of 1915 in Raoul Walsh’s remarkable REGENERATION, a technically advanced booze-fueled meller loaded with unforgettable Skid Row street grabs.

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