I was lucky enough to be able to shoot at this year's Queen's Plate, sort of like the Canadian version of the Kentucky Derby. This horse actually seemed to gleam. I think the camera caught that.
If you don't know, this short feature from 1956 was written and directed by Lionel Rogosin, and chronicles three days in the lives of several chronic drunks/bums living in the Bowery district of Manhattan, what you might call the original 'skid row'. It's sometimes called a 'docudrama' though it's much closer to being something like a 'dramatized documentary'. To be put it another way, all the people and locations are real and everyone plays themselves, but there is a loose sort of story. Because the 'actors' are playing themselves I don't think it's accurate to call the film 'neo-realist' either, although it's often lumped in with that school.
So how did they shoot it? After a lot of research I was only able to learn that the cinematographer Richard Bagley used an Arriflex and shot in 35mm - and that doesn't tell us much. Bagley had previously shot the documentary The Quiet One, and from On the Bowery I'd say he should pretty much be considered some kind of forgotten genius. He died only a few years after this film was made, and apparently the hardcore alcoholics featured in the film were amazed to see that Bagley drank even more than they did, which may explain why he never did much. Imagine over an hour's worth of the greatest street photography you've ever seen that was somehow shot with a big clunky 35mm motion picture camera on dark streets and in dim bars, and you'll have an idea what this film looks like. In the end, I really can't even imagine how Bagley and the rest of the (very tiny) crew pulled it off.
As to the content, there's no comparable film. Rogosin spent six months hanging out with his subjects to understand their world and earn their trust. He succeeded so well at the second goal that the movie has a mesmerizing fly-on-the-wall, hidden camera feel to it, though a hidden camera was never used. The skid row incarnation of the Bowery itself eventually disappeared when the nearby 'El' tracks were removed just months after filming, so the film serves as an irreplaceable record of a lost bit of history, and of course, lost lives.
To add to the toll: the old man pictured in the accompanying stills, Gorman Hendricks, died of liver failure just weeks after filming. And as for the 'star', a railroad worker and former soldier named Ray Salyer, no one knows what happened to him. Right after On the Bowery was released he was actually offered a $40,000 contract by RKO Pictures. You can see in the image at the very bottom of the post he really looked like a movie star. But he turned down the contract to continue drinking. Then he simply disappeared.
If you ever get the chance to see On the Bowery, jump at it. If you value documentary filmmaking, you should also consider just buying a copy.
Images courtesy of Milestone Films.