Ultimately, it is the film's masterful evocation of place, a place drawn with exact specificity, that makes the work so compelling. Ragosin gets down an extraordinary amount of detail. In the opening sequence, a montage of quick, fixed images set to a jazzy background, we see a row of men passed out in the midday street beneath the 3rd avenue el, police taking drunks away in a paddy wagon, the signs atop a city block, mostly advertising flophouses. As the camera moves inside a bar and focuses on a specific group of figures, we take in the faces and verbal patterns of the area's inhabitants. Salyer's smooth face and faint Midwestern accent serve as a foil to the well-worn countenances and gruff voices of the other men, the flesh hanging loosely from their faces, the eyes hollowed-out and vacant. The men speak unhurriedly, only occasionally breaking out in a drunken excitement. The words are garbled, heavy with outmoded slang ("plugged nickel"), ultimately unemphatic. The film takes us inside the various destinations of the neighborhood, the flophouses, where men pass the night if they haven't spent their last bit of change on drinks (in which case they sleep on the street), the Mission, which offers free bedding and showers in exchange for enduring an insipid sermon and pledging a commitment to sobriety and, of course, the dives where the men spend most of the day. Although the predicament of these men is by no means an isolated phenomena, the film is very specific in its evocation of place. The segments that detail the Bowery's various locales are composed largely of documentary footage, but there is more to articulating a specific setting than merely running a camera over a carefully selected environment (a lesson lost on many contemporary non-fiction filmmakers). With his unmistakable eye for detail, Ragosin is able to capture images that get to the heart of these settings: men playing dominoes or reading the newspaper in a flophouse lobby, a drunk going to sleep on a tiny flophouse bed, his bottle of whisky set off to the side, men laying newspaper on the Mission floor to sleep on.
What narrative the film contains details the arrival of Salyer, his introduction to the locals, his attempts to get clean at the Mission, his relapse into drunkenness, his getting robbed and his eventual attempt to leave the city, an attempt whose potential for success (the film ends with him waiting for the bus out of town) is called into question by a character's knowing insistence that "he'll be back." By using the narrative device of an outside observer (who becomes a participant), the audience is invited to see the Bowery from a certain objective distance, picking up on the unique details that are too much a part of the other men's lives to warrant comment, but which Salyer inevitably observes. Ragosin is content to milk the narrative for any cinematic usefulness it can provide, but he is equally likely to leave it aside for long stretches of time and focus on footage of the locals going about their daily business. Throughout the film, Ragosin favors fixed shots which allow the scenes to unfold in their own time with a seeming lack of directorial interference. This sense of "documentary objectivity" is of course patently false, since we know most of the dialogue is scripted and the shots are perfectly lit and carefully arranged. In fact, this artifice, so expertly employed, marks Ragosin's film as one of the most beautiful film treatments of so ugly a subject. This beauty doesn't distract from the miserableness of the images, but it allows for a certain appreciation of the men as people, even as they go about their daily humiliations. An extraordinarily vivid portrait of a unique place and time, Ragosin's On the Bowery remains one of the forgotten gems of American cinema.