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On the Bowery: The Films of Lionel Rogosin Vol. 1 (Blu-ray Review)

20 Feb, 2012 By: Mike Clark

Street 2/21/12
Two-disc set, $34.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.

John Cassavetes, who mentored Martin Scorsese early in the latter’s career, regarded the late Lionel Rogosin as one of the great filmmakers and 1957's On the Bowery as a major filmmaking influence (think Cassavetes’ Shadows right out of the box). Thus, it’s rather fitting that Scorsese introduce the home release of Milestone Films’ highly successful theatrical re-issue from 2010, which includes a wealth of supplementary materials that only strengthen the package of a fiction/non-fiction hybrid (though feature documentary Oscar nominee) that can pretty well stand on its own. Scorsese notes that when he looked out the window from where he grew up, the Bowery is what he saw.

The subject is not the domain of Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall and the Bowery Boys — which, truth to tell, was my assumption at age 10 when I was possibly the only kid in the Midwest who actively wanted to see this film. Then someone (probably my grandmother) explained that this was not the Bowery of Louie Dumbrowsky’s Malt Shop or Soda Shop or whatever it was that series co-star Bernard Gorcey’s character called his relatively refined establishment in the Monogram/Allied Artists "Bowery Boys" series of the 1950s. The guys in the real Bowery drank their liquids straight, I was pointedly informed.

The squalor quotient was, in fact, so high that New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther and America’s then Italian Ambassador Clare Boothe Luce — two people to who time hasn’t been very kind despite the latter’s authorship of The Women — gave it a big nix-nix for what it showed, he in print and she at the Venice Film Festival (where Bowery took top documentary honors). To be sure, there aren’t a whole lot of characters in this movie who’d have given Prince Rainer any competition for Grace Kelly, nor were there too many movies of the era when people talked of “taking a flop” (as in flophouse). Even usually estimable interviewer Dave Garroway is fairly patronizing to Rogosin in a 1956 TV clip included as one of the bonus extras. Why, Dave asks, would the latter want to make a movie bound to depress anyone who saw it?

Bowery is a drama constructed around raw faces, which is one reason why Cassavetes must have loved it — and if the acting here is a little in and out, it absolutely seems authentic and serves the filmmaker’s purpose. Rogosin spent months in the depressed New York City district getting to know his principals (or people like them) before fashioning a project that could get dicey on a dime — as when a recruited performer might make photographic shots impossible to match because he elected to go get a haircut without checking it out with anyone. One of the film’s two principals was drifter Ray Salyer, who was so ruggedly good-looking in the Gary Cooper mold that he got Hollywood offers after appearing (cleaned up) in the film’s promotional efforts. The other was a natural named Gorman Hendricks (as “Doc”), who was so prone in real life to benders that another doc said that one more would kill him. Rogosin had to get Hendricks to lay off extended binging during filming so as not to sink the project, and he did. At its conclusion, Hendricks made up for lost time — and died.

Expectedly, Bowery is heavy on “atmospherics,” and among the most affecting is a scene where the men exert themselves to attend Sunday morning church services in the neighborhood as the clergyman tries to do what he can in his sermon (mostly putting a temporary finger in a boozy dike). This material dovetails effectively with then-and-now short subjects included as bonus material (one a look at Bowery life in 1933) that Clare Booth Luce wouldn’t have liked, either). Included as well is a “making-of” look-back at the production — treatment afforded to this release’s second feature as well. This would be Good Times, Wonderful Times, made and shown on the early side of the mid-1960s when protests against the Vietnam War hadn’t taken full hold. Sometimes heavy-handed in its “shock” editing but a film that eventually won me over to a point, it juxtaposes often amazing war archive footage (heavy emphasis on Adolf & his lieutenants) against idle intellectuals at a cocktail party chatting in insipid fashion about war as theory while boilerplate Mod music blares in the background. I don’t actually remember the picture, but it’s hard to dispute the jacket’s claim that it was a giant ant-war film of the era, especially given that it came out at a time when there wasn’t a whole lot of screen competition and Hollywood was still making service comedies.

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