Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Little Fugitive Movie - A 1953 American Gem

Little Fugitive (1953) Directed by Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin
Cinematography by Morris Engel
Little Fugitive is a wonderful small scale American film released in 1953.  The film was written and directed by photographer husband and wife team Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin, along with long time friend and writer Raymond Abrashkin (as "Ray Ashley").  Morris Engel's All-American classic is widely regarded as one of the most influential and enjoyable films of the American Independent cinema.  It is a pleasure from start to finish, a little masterpiece that you'll never forget.  

When twelve year old Lennie Norton (Richard Brewster) is left at home to care for his younger seven year old brother Joey (Richard Andrusco), sibling relations get tested.  Lennie resents that their mother has left him with the responsibility to care for his younger brother when she is called out for an emergency to visit their sick grandmother.  Although the mother tells them to stay in the apartment while she is gone, nothing seems to matter and Joey and Lennie take to to the streets to play with their pals.  Lennie and his friends soon tire of babysitting Joey, so they decide to pull a practical joke on him: While playing with toy carabines they shoot at each other and they get the idea to allow Joey to shoot his brother Lennie.  They stage an incident to trick Joey but he doesn't know that Lennie will smear tomato ketchup on his shirt when Joey shoots him.  As soon as that happens, the boys tell him he accidentally killed Lennie, and Lennie pretends to be dead.  They tell Joey that the police will catch him and imprison him.  Joey, believing Lennie's pals, becomes frightened and runs away.  

With six dollars in his pocket, Joey runs to the nearest elevated train station.  He heads for one  the one of the largest playgrounds - Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York, where the amusement park and its characters come to life through a child's eyes.  He seems to forget his predicament and spends the day wandering around arcades, pony rides, and the beach.  When the money runs out, he earns money for snacks by cashing in deposit bottles that he finds on the beach and spends the night sleeping under the boardwalk.  Joey indulges himself with amusement rides and carnival food, and as the weekend progresses, Lennie begins an equally frantic adventurous search for his missing kid brother.  When Lennie gets a call from mom, he is finally taken back to reality and knows he only has a few hours to find his lost brother before mom returns.  On a pony ride, the proprietor is suspicious that Joey is a runaway and tricks Joey into giving him his address.  The pony ride proprietor calls home and alerts Lennie, who comes to Coney Island and finds his brother.  It is an adventure  that will give viewers a glimpse of what it was like going to the Boardwalk in the 1950s.  

The film was shot with amazing realism that you can't believe there is a camera anywhere around filming the child as he spends the day running wild as a fugitive from justice at Coney Island.  The story is simple and touching and involves the viewer into the point of view of the child and his innocent way of thinking.  What ensues is a seven year olds fantasy.  It is an interesting snapshot of a time and place long gone.  A time when Pepsi bottles were returnable, when there were cotton candy vendors, carousels with a calliope, mechanical fortune tellers, arcades, and games such as throwing an underweight baseball at a stacked pile of weighted milk bottles.  

The team of filmmakers had a small budget to work with, but made the best of it by using a cast of non-actors.  The scenes were shot with a handheld 35 milimeter homemade camera discreetly filmed in the streets of Brooklyn and at Coney Island.  The camera used did not record sound, and dialogue was dubbed subsequent to filming.  Its value as a cinematic style setter is equaled by its value as a historical record of a city long gone.  It is photographed beautifully in rich tonalities of black and white perfectly exposed for a hot summer day.  It is an utterly charming story that poetically captures the joys and wonders of childhood.  

Morris Engel was a pioneer in the use of handheld cameras and nonprofessional actors in his films.  Using cameras that he helped design and his naturalistic films, influenced future prominent independent filmmakers.  Little Fugitive influenced the French New Wave cinema (La Nouvelle Vauge), a blanket term coined by critics for a group of french filmmakers of the late 1950s and 1960s, influenced by Italian Neorealism and classic Hollywood cinema.  Little Fugitive became an example of European art cinema.  Using portable equipment and requiring little or no set up time, the New Wave of filmmaking presented a documentary type style.  Filming techniques included fragmented, discontinuous editing, and long takes.  

French director Françoit Truffaut was really taken by this film and was influenced as he made his film 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups, 1959).  He was quoted saying, "Our New Wave would never have come into being if it hadn't been for young Morris Engel, with his fine Little Fugitive."  High praise indeed, and as Trauffaut observed, this early milestone of American Independent filmmaking had a powerful influence on such later French classics as The Red Balloon, White Mane (Crin Blanc 1953), and Trauffaut's own Les Mistons.  

Little Fugitive won the Silver Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival in 1953 and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Script Writing in 1954.  The film was inducted for preservation into the prestigious National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1997 as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

Little Fugitive is a time capsule preserving a nostalgic and innocent era on a hot summer day at Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York.   It is is a film without a doubt to be enjoyed by the entire family.  


  1. Wow, thanks for posting! Keep posting on these topics. I am interested to know more!