Little Fugitive (1953)

Reviewed By Elaine Perrone
Posted 03/26/05 12:33:15

"A little gem...and a landmark in independent filmmaking."
5 stars (Awesome)

When photojournalist and maverick filmmaker Morris Engel died in New York on March 5, 2005, at the age of 86, his obituary in the Los Angeles Times included a tribute from François Truffaut. The legendary French auteur had once told the New Yorker magazine, “Our New Wave would never have come into being, if it hadn't been for the young American, Morris Engel, who showed us the way to independent production with his fine movie, Little Fugitive.” Little Fugitive, and Engel, set a precedent for independent filmmaking in Hollywood, as well, influencing the work of John Cassavetes and, later, that of Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarentino.

Engel teamed with his wife, photographer Ruth Orkin, and a friend, Ray Ashley, to co-produce, co-write, and co-direct Little Fugitive, which they completed on a miniscule budget of about $30,000. Using a lightweight hand-held 35mm camera, which a friend invented for him, Engel shot Little Fugitive entirely on the streets of Brooklyn and on Coney Island over a period of a few months. The film’s score is performed on a solo harmonica and the pipes of a calliope. Shot in black-and-white, Little Fugitive runs a total of 80 minutes and is almost dialogue-free. (What little dialogue there is – about 2,000 words – was post-synchronized in a studio.) Its two stars, and many of the supporting players, were inexperienced children from the neighborhood, for whom Little Fugitive is their only screen credit.

After being turned down by every major U.S. distributor, Little Fugitive was finally picked up by a man named Joe Burstyn, a leading distributor of Italian films. Astonishingly – and deservedly – this small gem of cinematic pioneering went on to win the Venice Film Festival’s Silver Lion award. It also garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay, rather ironic in that the film’s true brilliance lies in Engel’s indelible images, Orkin’s fine editing, and the naturalness of the children’s performances. The story itself couldn’t possibly be slighter.

The magical, often poignant, Little Fugitive centers on two brothers. At its heart is Joey Norton (Richie Andrusko), a husky, freckle-faced seven-year-old who loves horses and hanging out with his older brother, Lennie. Trouble is, twelve-year-old Lennie (Richard Brewster) and his friends consider Joey a major pain and spend their time trying to find ways to dodge him. Overhearing the older lads planning an excursion to Coney Island, Joey begs to be included but is rebuffed. When the boys’ mother is called away on a family emergency, she puts Lennie in charge of Joey, scuttling the Coney Island outing entirely. Miffed, the others concoct a cruel prank, featuring a rifle and a bottle of ketchup. Staging a shooting of Lennie, his buddies convince little Joey that he must run away, lest he “fry” for murdering his brother. With no destination in mind, the little boy boards a train, with only the $6.00 his mother has left behind for household expenses. The train’s last stop: Coney Island.

Employing his small camera to photograph the boardwalk and beaches from spaces as confined as a merry-go-round and a batting cage, from underneath a pier and the top of the towering Parachute Jump, Engel’s Little Fugitive is a delightful chronicle of Joey’s Excellent Adventure, and an absorbing slice-of-life portrait of hundreds of thousands of people at leisure, with no clue whatsoever that they were being filmed.

In the DVD’s commentary, Engel noted that he did not elicit performances from the children, but simply gave them minimal direction – more like suggestions – and allowed them to act upon their own natural instincts. In one scene, I gasped as Joey happily – and precariously – grabbed for the brass ring on a fast-moving carrousel. Other scenes caused great merriment as I watched the seven-year-old’s innate creativity with food: Absent-mindedly arranging peas on a dinner plate, spitting out a too-hot bite of hot dog and allowing it to cool between his small fingers before popping it back into his mouth, spitting seeds from a slice of watermelon wider than the span of his own shoulders, and blissfully digging in to a box of Cracker Jack while riding a mechanical horse.

When his money runs out at the same time Joey discovers the pony rides, he is crestfallen – until he learns the concept of collecting deposit bottles and redeeming them for coins for a potentially endless number of rides. The scenes of Joey scouring the teeming beaches for empty bottles are among the most absorbing in their simplicity, depicting ordinary people (but for a few relatives, including Engel’s wife Ruth, in cameos) going about their business of sunbathing or playing in the sand, cuddling on towels, and crowding around drinking fountains. Engel even managed to capture through his lens an actual drowning that occurred while he was filming.

Some of the film’s most beautiful images are those shot in silhouette late at night, or at daybreak when the boardwalk and beaches are empty and silent but for the sounds of birds and gently lapping waves.

After Little Fugitive, Engel went on to release only two more feature films: Lovers and Lollipops (co-written and directed by Orkin, 1956), and Weddings and Babies (1958). Together, the collection is often referred to as The New York Trilogy. All three are available on video through Kino International, although, unfortunately, so far, only Little Fugitive has made the transfer to DVD. The DVD’s extras are the original theatrical trailer and a fascinating commentary by Engel.

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