It begins in the shadow of the new elevated train, with alcoholic vagabonds stumbling towards consciousness, some from doorways, others scraping themselves right off the streets where they have been splayed in muscatel paralysis since the bars closed the night before. Those unable to rise are helped to their feet by police, who feed them to the wagon and cart them off to jail. Ray enters the scene, looking like Mel Gibson amid the puffed and shattered faces of the Bowery denizens, carrying a suitcase and the money he has made from working on the railroad in Jersey. When he walks into the Roadhouse Bar and Grill, we see where John Cassavetes got his inspiration for the bar scenes in his film, “Husbands.” Director Lionel Rogosin doesn’t give us the set-up and follow-through of a fiction film. Neither does he meander pointlessly with a verite camera. As Ray is approached by a fellow drunkard, we feel his intention is to convert the money in the newcomer’s pocket into drinks for the regulars, so it is not necessary to spell it all out. We know the routine as well as Ray, who knows how to play it without getting fleeced or jumped. When we see this kind of scene in a dramatic film such as “Barfly,” every step of its development is spelled out so overtly that we don’t even need to pay much attention to follow what is happening. In “On the Bowery,” we are left to look and decipher for ourselves.
This is a world that we have read in the novels of John Fante, James Jones, and Hubert Selby Jr, but have rarely seen in the movies. The only difference between these men and the “holy seraphim” of Alan Ginsberg’s “Howl” is that these boys are too far gone for any of kind of sex. In one scene, Ray thinks better of accompanying a female pick-up to her apartment, and brutally shoves her away. She does not come artificially begging him to continue with her, but fades quietly into the night.
“I gave you fifteen cents to buy a band-aid and you never came back. That’s about the lousiest thing a guy can do.” The dialogue here is so hard-boiled, yet lacks the smacking wit of the professional pulp writer. It issues from the staggering brain of the speaker without jumping through any literary hoops. There might be a plot inconsistency here and there, but there is nothing phony in “On the Bowery.” The film is rich with mesmerizing views of the dregs of fifties-era New York City: the bars, the flops, the missions, and above all the men.
Gorman has a twinkle in one of his near-dead eyes that promises to cut you in on the deal while the other eye is sizing you up, figuring how to take you for everything you’ve got. Frank pushes a cart through the streets, selling cardboard, metal, and rags. Other guys have their pipe dreams, like the old salt who sees himself shipping out to the South Seas and settling down beneath a coconut tree. The threat of violence is beneath every surface, with the bile of bitterness always ready to punch through the muscatel calm at the first offending insinuation.
Ray makes several attempts to stay away from the booze, but finds he cannot stand the alternatives to the Roadhouse Bar and Grill. In the soup line at the mission, the men are filmed through bars, making it look like they are in prison. During the obligatory sermon, Rogosin keeps things interesting by giving most of the screen time to the faces of the men in the pews. And what faces. In the film’s final moments, Rosogin, cinematographer Dick Bagley, and editor Carl Lerner put together a gallery that marries Ansel Adams with Rembrandt. It is montage that merits comparison to the final images of Antonioni’s “L’Eclisse,” another film that brings the human race to its knees with its answer to the question it has been asking itself since it learned to stand on two feet. “What are we?”