Under the steelwork silhouette of the Third Avenue El, bums splay out across doorjambs in mid-afternoon; anyone who has scraped together enough money already has their binge underway. It’s a few stops downtown from P.J. Clarke’s and Don Birnam’s apartment in The Lost Weekend, but formally it’s another universe—shots of winos being scooped into police vans seem cut-in direct from life, seemingly surreptitiously filmed; people, buildings, everything in sight shows marks that could only come of long, terrible attrition. There are no open-armed, redemptive Jane Wymans here, only men, specimens in advanced states of decay, in-and-out-of-Bellevue types not quite able to fill out their rusty, piss-scented trousers. Enter a new guy, Ray (Ray Salyer), whose biceps still fill out his sleeves, his chest not yet concave, looking preoccupied as he enters the Confidence Bar & Grill. He’s railroaded into buying a round of drinks, learns a few names, and just like that he’s part of the Bowery.
Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery, opening for a weeklong run at Film Forum, is ostensibly Ray’s story: He’s hustled for his suitcase by a sack-shaped, apparently harmless coot (moustache-chewing Gorman Hendricks, a real-life Bowery resident), kicks around at the corner of Houston looking for day labor, gets rowdily drunk off muscatel, tries to bed down with a hatchet-faced barfly, gets rolled for his couple of bucks. In another sense, maybe more successfully, On the Bowery is the distilled essence of a bygone social panoply, fully infiltrating the Bowery at a very specific spot on its timeline, when it served as the final way station before potter’s field and oblivion. Read all of Nick Pinkerton’s review of On the Bowery.