On The Bowery

The faces are eerily familiar. Grizzled and glowing like Rembrandt’s old men, infused with monumental fervor like Eisenstein’s revolutionary heroes, etched in crushing worry like Jacob Riis’s Lower East Side pushcart handlers. Lost in the shadows underneath the noisy Third Avenue El, the men subsist. They drink cheap muscatel or squeeze sterno for its narcotic, deadly juice. They sleep in flophouses for a dime, or take their chances on the street. They tell tales of former, grander lives and vow they’re getting out, but never do — except when they die. This is life On the Bowery, circa 1956, as depicted in Lionel Rogosin’s now-classic “documentary.”

In a radiantly restored print, the black-and-white cinematography by Richard Bagley shimmers. Hopelessness and decay have never looked so rich. With a cast comprised of actual Bowery denizens improvising on their own lives but following Rogosin’s sketchy outline, the movie is both real and fiction. The incidents may be staged, but every character (and that physical environment) is sadly true and deeply powerful.

The film’s star, the incredibly photogenic and movie-star-ready Ray Salyer, couldn’t leave the Bowery’s siren spell even when Hollywood came calling after the film won Best Documentary awards at Venice and London, and was nominated for an Academy Award. He disappeared back into the Bowery shadows and was never seen again. 7 p.m. Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet. For information, call 713-639-7515 or visit www.mfah.org. $6 to $7.
Sat., June 4, 7 p.m., 2011


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