An unsparing glimpse into the lives of real-life alcoholics and homeless on Manhattan's infamous skid row, "Bowery" focuses on two characters. At the start, Ray Salyer is visiting the Bowery for the first time, flush with cash from working the railroad. His taste for demon rum will quickly drain away his modest nest egg, and soon this strapping young man is sleeping on the street. Meanwhile, his older friend Gorman Hendricks manages to survive — just barely — by his wits, although he died from a bender weeks after the movie premiered. Director Rogosin spent six months in the neighborhood really getting to know these people before filming. The resulting work accurately conveys the squalor and desperation of life on the streets, while regarding its residents fellow human beings after all with the proper measure of sympathy and compassion.
This landmark, Oscar-nominated documentary blends scripted scenes with improvised dialogue to create a compelling, highly personal portrait of lost souls with nowhere to go but down. We see these Bowery Boys getting drunk, conniving, fighting, passing out; but also betraying sadness, regret and (false) hope, and showing one another small kindnesses. Though at moments we sense a certain awkwardness in the staging, we recognize these are not actors, but real people leading real lives. Rogosin deserves enormous credit for pulling off something quite extraordinary: creating a movie that makes us look hard at people we spend the rest of our lives looking away from.