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Film / On the Bowery

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On the Bowery is a 1957 film directed by Louis Rogosin.

Once upon a time, poor people lived on Manhattan Island. Specifically, many of them lived in the Bowery, a run-down neighborhood on the Lower East Side. The Bowery was a haven for alcoholic drifters, mostly men, living desperate existences in filthy flophouses, or in charitable missions, or as this film shows, often sleeping on the street.

Into this sad scene enters Ray, who, like everyone else in the Bowery, is an alcoholic bum. Ray, however, is somewhat younger and handsomer than the grizzled old hobos who make up the bulk of the community. He arrives in town with a little bit of money from laboring, and hopes of a better future, but the lure of the Bowery draws him back into old habits.

Although this film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, it isn't really a documentary. Rogosin wrote a story and recruited denizens of the Bowery to act it out for him on film. As late as the 1990s the Bowery was still a haven for penniless winos but gentrification has changed the neighborhood radically in the 21st century.



  • The Alcoholic: All of them. In one scene Ray has a drink with Gorman but remarks that he shouldn't drink any more, lest he spend the money he managed to scrounge together for a room in a flophouse. Three bars later, Ray is passing out in the street.
  • Amateur Cast: Rogosin recruited Bowery bums to act out his story. Ray's friend Gorman died before this film was first shown.
  • And the Adventure Continues: A depressing example. Gorman has a wad of cash that he got from stealing and pawning Ray's watch. He feels bad enough about this to give Ray a few dollars, which Ray plans to use to buy a clean set of clothes, which will improve his odds of getting day laborer work, which would help him escape the Bowery. Gorman tells the other bums about Ray's plan to work for money to get himself to Chicago. The last line of dialogue is a more cynical hobo saying "He'll be back." The movie then ends with a scene showing Ray loitering on the streets.
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  • Blatant Lies: Gorman tells Ray that he's flat broke, saying "I haven't got a plug nickel." In fact Gorman has a roll of cash that he got from stealing and pawning Ray's pocket watch.
  • Bookends: A montage of the sad residents of the Bowery—loitering, passed out on the streets, staggering around—begins the movie. A very similar montage ends it.
  • Condescending Compassion: At one point Ray manages to get into a mission that admits hobos from the Bowery. He manages to sit through a condescending sermon from a preacher telling all the hobos to accept Jesus, but after a mission worker rattles off all the rules that transients have to obey in order to get a bed, Ray leaves in disgust and goes back to the Bowery to get drunk.
  • Drugs Are Bad: In one scene Gorman and Ray are sharing their depressing life stories. Gorman mentions to Ray that at one point, he went to medical school. And in fact, he became a doctor, and practiced as a surgeon, before drinking led him to become a penniless bum on the Bowery.
  • Hobos: A particularly grim portrait drawn from Real Life, showing the lives of winos who have to scrabble for a place to stay the night.
  • Lady Drunk: Most of the winos of the Bowery are men, but there are some women drunks there, and if possible they are even sadder. One drunk woman invites Ray to her place—apparently she's doing well enough to have an address, and Ray is a lot better looking than all the other gray-haired winos. But when she wants to go home instead of going to another bar, Ray pushes her away.
  • Noodle Incident: Among the rags that Ray has in his suitcase is a gold pocket watch. Gorman wants Ray to pawn it but Ray refuses. If the watch has any significance beyond being the only thing of value that Ray owns, we never find out what it is.
  • Riches to Rags: Gorman, the dirty old Bowery bum, was once a practicing surgeon. See Drugs Are Bad above.
  • Slice of Life: A rather depressing drama showing the lives of hopeless alcoholics in the Bowery.

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