Morris Engel’s Little Fugitive, a model for independent filmmaking from John Cassavetes and Francois Truffaut to the modern American Indie scene, shows on Turner Classic Movies in a “Tribute to Morris Engel” this month. I wrote an essay and appreciation of the film for the TCM website.
Morris Engel and his collaborator (and, later, wife) Ruth Orkin are hardly household names, but they are in many ways the proud parents of the American independent scene, birthed with their first film, the 1953 production Little Fugitive. Shot on a minuscule budget with non-actors on location (largely at Coney Island), the film chronicles the adventures of the seven-year-old Joey who panics after his brother perpetrates a vicious prank, making the little boy think he has killed him in a gun accident. Joey (Richie Andrusco, a kid Engel cast right from the streets) runs away to Coney Island where he gets lost in the crowds and takes refuge under the boardwalk. It’s a more innocent time and there is little (if any) peril to his predicament, no more than the fear of losing his trousers when he abandons them to take a swim. When an overtly friendly employee at the pony rides starts to get chummy and then suspicious when he notices Joey keeps showing up without any parents, it’s all out of genuine concern for a little boy lost.
Engel and Orkin are less concerned with story than character, and not just Joey. Little Fugitive takes place in a palpably real world: the concrete neighborhood of Joey’s home has a life and character unique to it and Engel takes the camera into the crowds of Coney Island and through the weekend beachgoers off the boardwalk to capture the real life rhythms of New Yorkers and the atmosphere and energy of Coney Island in the summer. Some of the picture-perfect situations border on precious and the film runs largely on charm, but Engel’s eye for people and landscape and social activity gives it a vibrancy that is still compelling. Much of the richness comes from the accumulation of real and realistic details, from the location shooting, the script rooted more in character than plot, and the easy, naturalistic performances from casts of non-professionals. The black and white photography is not gritty but does lend an authenticity to the production. A professional photojournalist, a former combat photographer and a lifelong street photographer, Engels brings a sensitivity to his images and compositions. While one tempted to dismiss Richie Andrusco’s excellent central performance as lucky casting (he is always unselfconscious and not at all cloying), you have to wonder if Engel’s work with models is responsible for a different perspective to directing actors.
Read my complete feature here.
The film plays on April 8 and again in May, and is available on DVD from Kino.