Monday Editor’s Pick: Little Fugitive (1953)

by on April 24, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick


Playing Mon April 30 at 7:30 at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]
*Q&A with Mary Engel

 
BAM’s great “Brooklyn Close-Up” series checks in again with this irresistibly endearing Coney Island indie classic. Mary Engel, daughter of directors Ruth Orkin and Morris Engel, will be on hand to discuss the project, not to mention, Brooklyn Brewery sets up shop in the lobby from 6:30 to 9:30pm offering free samples of BAMboozle Ale.
 

Francois Truffaut famously declared, “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 The Little Fugitive.”
 

Gary Morris for Bright Lights Film Journal:

It’s not hard to see why Little Fugitive, Engel and Orkin’s most famous and successful film, was so inspiring not only to the French but also to American auteurs like Cassavettes (Shadows) and Scorsese (Who’s That Knocking on My Door?). Like the two features that would follow it, Little Fugitive is a paean to the sights, smells, and sounds of New York, from the cramped but somehow comforting streets of Brooklyn to the dazzling chaos of Coney Island as seen through a child’s eyes. Engel and Orkin extrapolate the universal from the personal in this Homeric story of a little boy’s heroic trek alone through the vastness of an urban amusement park.
 
The film’s sometimes painterly visuals add resonance to the tiniest details — two toddlers grappling with each other on the beach; a couple making out on a blanket, their faces unseen; a mother spilling her baby’s milk. These shots seem at once casual, real, and artful, as if in recording the simple truth of an event the filmmakers have stumbled upon art. There’s a stunning sequence of a sudden, violent storm that clears the beach, and the filmmakers take great delight in observing the chaos. Among those scrambling toward shelter are a group of black kids delicately stepping through the huge puddles on the street just beyond the beach. In a lovely wordless passage, Joey wanders across the beach after the storm, at night, dwarfed by the enormity of the world around him and, one feels, by his own future.

 

 
Michael Antman for PopMatters:

Seeing the toothy, freckled Andrusco consume a large slice of watermelon, or struggle in a batting cage with a bat that is far too heavy for him, or collect empty bottles of soda pop for spare change, is an oddly beautiful experience: It is like watching one’s own dim memories of childhood come back to life in a way that virtually no contemporary movie, with its over-determined and focus-grouped stories and expensive effects – talk about garish and grotesque! – could possibly hope to do.

 
Michael Sragow for The New Yorker:

At its core, this pioneering independent film from 1953 is an urban heart-warmer, but it has a fresh, gritty surface and a Grade A horror-comic hook: a seven-year-old boy (Richie Andrusco), believing that he has fatally shot his older brother, goes on the lam. The tension peaks when the boy pulls the trigger, a moment that serves to epitomize claustrophobic mean-street queasiness and keeps the rest of the film from seeming sappy. Morris Engel, the cinematographer, who shares the writing and directing credits with Ruth Orkin (his wife) and Ray Ashley, uses a handheld camera to exploit the wonders of Coney Island; the result is a lively essay on ball-toss games, pop-bottle deposits, pony rides, and human midsections of all varieties, as seen from a four-footer’s perspective. Truffaut considered the film an inspiration for the French New Wave-and no wonder. This valuable record of love and pain on the beach captures unique vignettes, like that of a pair of lovers staking out a spot on the sand, then hiding their heads under a towel as they snuggle and smooch.

 

 

Joshua Land for the Village Voice:

An underseen indie-film landmark and an invaluable artifact of local history to boot, the 1953 Little Fugitive takes off from the slimmest of stories: Tricked into thinking he’s killed his older brother, a seven-year-old boy goes on the lam, spending the better part of two days and a night wandering the beaches and boardwalks of Coney Island as his (very much alive) brother struggles to find him before their mother returns home. Seldom effective as storytelling, Little Fugitive shines as a beautifully shot document of a bygone Brooklyn—any drama here resides in the grainy black-and-white cinematography, with its careful attention to the changes in light brought on by the inexorably advancing sun. Both Truffaut and Cassavetes were fans of the film, and its influence is obvious—moments of blissed-out carnival-ride fun find echoes in The 400 Blows, and the pervasive loose framing, found angles, and jumpy editing suggest Shadows. Filled with “Aw, fellas!” period ambience and the mythic imagery of cowboys and horses, comics and baseball, it’s a key proto-vérité slice of urban Americana.

 
Cullen Gallagher for L Magazine:

Little Fugitive delicately blends documentary realism and candid-camera style photography with a sparse, unobtrusive narrative, the combination of which recalls equally the light touch of early cinema actualities and 1940s Italian Neorealism. Engel’s background with the Photo League, as well as Orkin’s newsreel training during WWII, give the film’s portrait of New York City, and particularly Coney Island, a staggering, nostalgia-inducing authenticity. Much like Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon and The White Mane, the sophisticated storytelling and dark undercurrents of Little Fugitive dismiss any notion of it being a “kids” film.

 

 

J. Hoberman, also for the Village Voice:

The original movie location, beloved by the makers of primitive actualités and slapstick comedians alike, Coney Island was never more lovingly depicted than in Morris Engel’s 1953 Little Fugitive-the blockbuster hit of New York Neo-Realism.
 
Few movies have been more dedicated to a child’s point of view. The rides, the boardwalk, the crowds, and the beach are rigorously presented from the perspective of a dour seven-year-old cowboy who has taken it on the lam, running away from deepest Bensonhurst because the neighborhood kids have led him to believe that he plugged his older brother with a cap gun. Funny? Yes. Colorful? Undoubtedly. A former staff photographer for the lefty tabloid PM, Engel had ample appreciation for Coney Island as New York’s human comedy. Cute? Not really-and that’s the beauty part. Engel manages to identify the kid’s existential situation with his own as he felt his way through his first feature film.
An outgrowth of street photography, inspired by Open City and The Bicycle Thief, New York Neo-Realism was the main independent tendency of the post-World War II decade; it was anticipated by Helen Levitt’s mid-’40s project In the Street and culminated in John Cassavetes’s late-’50s Shadows (which created a new actor-driven paradigm for local indies). NY N-R feature docs and doc-style features include Sidney Meyer’s The Quiet One, Stanley Kubrick’s Killer’s Kiss, and Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery, but it was Engel’s film that gave the movement an international presence. Little Fugitive won a prize at the 1953 Venice Film Festival (and was generously credited by François Truffaut with inspiring the nouvelle vague), but Engel would never repeat its success, either critically or aesthetically.

 

 
Michael Atkinson for Fandor:

We should take the time and clear any weeds that may have grown over the three modest features of Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin – Little Fugitive (1953), Lovers and Lollipops (1955) and Weddings and Babies (1958) – partly for their significance as pioneer visions, if not for the inescapable capacity the films have to bestow a sense of having lived something genuine, not merely “watched.” They are such modest, unassuming visitations with real life that it’d be easy to ignore the passage they opened for cineastes thereafter. Before Little Fugitive, independent movies were barnstorming exploitation flicks or Poverty Row riffs, sold to grindhouses and filling the bottom half of the lowliest double bills. Movies had novel-like stories to run through in three acts, and their protagonists were possessed by action and desire; they didn’t kill time watching street life, wander through Coney Island without a destination, ponder the sunshine through a dirty window. Noirs began embracing what cinematographers began calling a “street style” come the ‘50s, but only Engel/Orkin made it happen documentary-style, with only a wind-up camera (shooting without sound) and the cluttered boroughs of New York. From there, we got the organic pro-am genuineness of John Cassavetes and the French New Wave (Francois Truffaut was famously a big Little Fugitive devotee.)
 
Little Fugitive is a palm-sized story, slogged a touch by post-dubbing and decidedly non-pro performances, and yet it feels like an epiphany, like movies after decades of festooned artifice just discovered the wonder and rue of watching a real boy do the things real boys do. Freckly, gimlet-eyed, Little Rascals-like Richie Andrusco is just an everyday kid, with no special relationship with the camera or acting chops, and yet that is precisely what sucks us in – maybe for the first time in American movies, we’re watching a child behaving in ways we once behaved and barely recall. Little Fugitive plays like a memory, a photo album come to life, a silvery chunk of your own life captured in nitrate. A no-brainer selection for the National Film Registry, the film is cinema-as-history incarnate. The Coney Island around Andrusco is its own kind of transcendence, a place and time captured forever as indelibly as Robert Flaherty’s Arctic Circle in Nanook of the North and Jean-Luc Godard’s Champs-Elysses in Breathless; like those cinematic landmarks, we should be careful of underestimating the richness of life details contained in these time capsules.

 

 

Sean Axemaker with some technical details, for TCM:

Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin and Ray Ashley share directing and original story credit and double up on other production duties: Engel shot the film himself, Orkin learned to edit film on the fly (she shares credit with Lester Troob) and Ashley co-produces. Engel insisted on shooting on 35mm to get the image quality he felt was needed to compete with Hollywood films. In the commentary track that he recorded for the 1999 DVD release, he felt that at that time, 16mm film could not provide a professional quality image, at least in terms of Hollywood feature filmmaking. The key to shooting Little Fugitive on location was a portable 35mm camera designed by Engel and built by Charlie Woodruff. Engel was able to strap the camera to his shoulder and take it into the streets, into the crowds at the Coney Island midway, even into a batting cage as Joey wildly swung at every ball coming his way (Engel actually got beaned by one of the boy’s sloppy hits; you can see the camera react ever so slightly but Engel keeps shooting). He eschewed the use of a tripod and still managed to keep a remarkably steady image in the era before the development of the Steadycam. Engel claims that another fellow filmmaker just breaking into the filmmaking business, an ambitious young director named Stanley Kubrick, was so impressed with his camera that he asked to rent it for his next production.
 
What Engel couldn’t do with his skeleton crew (which was sometimes no more than two people) and portable equipment was record live sound, so he took a cue from the Italian Neo-realist filmmakers and shot the entire film without sound. Every line of dialogue was dubbed in the studio, which encouraged Engel and his screenwriters to include as little dialogue as they could get away with. You can see the imperfections of the dubbing here and there these were kids they cast off the streets, after all, not professionals with any kind of performance experience but overall it’s an effective solution. The background sound was all foley work by professional sound editors, who did a terrific job of creating a vivid soundscape. Eddy Manson, who was making a name for himself as a virtuoso harmonica player on TV variety shows, was approached to compose and play the score as a budget-minded alternative to a traditional orchestral soundtrack.

 

 

Mike D’Angelo for Time Out New York:

Arguably one of the most influential and innovative movies in the medium’s history – a film that not only inspired the French critics who would form the New Wave, but also seems to have foreshadowed the wave of lyrically observational, child’s eye narratives that poured out of Iran in the 80s and 90s. There’s little suspense or dramatic incident and virtually no dialogue; instead, the camera simply follows Joey around, watching with bemused curiosity as he munches on a Nathan’s ot dog, collects deposit-redeemable bottles at the seashore to finance his jones for the pony ride, and wanders aimlessly underneath the boardwalk, peering through the slats at the shadows of passersby above.
 
Once Joey hits Coney Island with $6 (a small fortune for a young boy in 1953) in one pocket and his “dead” brother’s prized harmonica in the other, it’s hard to imagine any New Yorker not feeling a warm glow at these stolen images of a bygone era. You have to admire the filmmakers’ dedication too. At once point, Joey’s in a batting cage, swinging wildly a pitches aimed roughly at the level of his head. One of the balls he hits clearly smacks right into the camera operator; the image abruptly lurches backward, and Andrusco has to stifle a laugh. The camera just keeps on rollin’.

 

 
The incomparable Billy Rose in his syndicated column “Pitching Horseshoes”:

The prize-winning movie, produced on the thin end of a shoestring, confirms a theory I’ve had for a long time – that Hollywood would make better pictures if they didn’t have so doggone much money.There’s not much to the plot, and yet the result is a movie that generates more fire power than half a dozen Errol Flynn epics.
 
The day after I saw “The Little Fugitive,” I got in touch with its producers and asked them some questions.
 
“How much did your picture cose?” I said.
“Eighty-seven thousands dollars,” said Ray Ashley.
“The initial overhead in a bif studio is usually $250,00.” I said. “What was yours?”
“Something less than $2,000,” said Morris Engel.
“How about the music?”
“We only have $1,000 to spend,” said Ruth Orkin, “so we used one harmonica. A big one, however – three octaves.”
“What did you pay your star?”
“Richie Andrusco got $150 a week,” said Ashley. “It might amuse you to know his mother was scared to death when we handed her the contract – she thought she had to pay us $250 a week.”

 

Said mother, Stella Andrusco, writes about the experience for The Brooklyn Daily Eagle”
 

 
Cahiers corner! French critics weigh in on the film…
 
André Bazin:

The extraordinary child discovered by the actors on a carousel in Coney Island behaves in front of the camera exactly as if it didn’t exist. We feel that we are perpetually observing his behavior without him knowing it, as we might watch an animal in the forest through a telephoto lens. He never seems to be following the pre-established framework of the screenplay, but rather creating it as he goes along. In fact, he really does create it on the level of the details that he invents and freely acts out. But it is precisely these details tat are the film’s substance: they constitute it much more than any dramatic category in which they are inscribed. That Joey decides to collect Coke bottles to make a few pennies is a clever idea of the screenplay, but its only interest is that it allows us to watch the child at his work-play. Here the screenplay gives way to mise-en-scene, or rather to its absence, which allows Richie Andrusco to invent, for his pleasure and ours, each moment of his relations with the Coca Cola bottles. It would not be surprising if the child’s initiatives hadn’t suggested episodes to the screenwriters on several occasions, but that wouldn’t be necessary for us to feel with good reason that we are seeing the film budding before our eyes, growing and freely developing like life itself.
 
No doubt the child already constitutes a captivating spectacle because of his personal mystery. But the main thing is that a film can derive its charm from nothing but our curiosity about the next instant, independently of all vicissitudes.

 


 

Alain Bergala (also in 2009):

At the convergence point of several histories, that of modern cinema, that of independent American cinema, that of New York Photography, that of the light 35mm cameras’ technology, there necessarily had to be a film. Little Fugitive is that film. Like Rome, Open City, like Breathless, is one of those precarious films, out of production norms, out of technical norms, out of aesthetic norms, which almost never existed for the public, but which made cinema move in a radical way.

 
As with each issue, the editors must have wondered which film would be on the cover that month. Les Cahiers were publishing, not without some worry, Francois Truffaut’s famous essay about “a certain tendency in French cinema,” which was going to bring things to a head in French cinema and pave the way for the New Wave. Little Fugitive was the ideal movie, with its freedom and its emancipation from all forms of academic professionalism, for the cover not to be in contradiction with that manifest’s statements.

 
When I was working on Godard au travail, I discovered that all the interviews Truffaut gave at the time of Breathless’ release, the film’s script writer and a friend of Godard, the statement that without this Little Fugitive, there woudl have been neither The 400 Blows, nor Breathless returned like a leitmotiv. During a stay in New York, I made an appointment with Mary Engel, Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin’s daughter. She pulled out of a cardboard box where it was rolled up in a solidly scotch-taped cover, like a weapon hidden durring the war, the famous camera. A letter from Godard from the beginning of the sixties, was offering to purchase this little 35mm camera, which he already needed, from Morris Engel.

 

 
Thierry Méranger (in 2009):

We will never be done enumerating Little Fugitive‘s quiet boldness. Ruth Orkin does wonders with the editing, making use of shots – many of which leer towards the sequence, including a scene with sausage and beans in which an absolutely astonishing little Richie Audruscho sulks and makes faces without overeacting – and shorter segments. Hence the harnessing of the crowd that alternates very different shot values. The contrasts between the the overpopulated shots, remarkably composed, and shots in which an almost renoirian emptiness allows itself to be progressively inhabited. The daring cut-ins between different moments of the intrigue – we skip along, up-ending everything, from the exercise to the competition. Or the cut-ins that allow one to glimpse, under the most obvious documentary aspects, as the filigree of fantasy.

 
These shifts, as much suggested as they are enacted, still give rise today to our enjoyment as spectators. Joey hence replays all the cinematographic genres that did their time. Crime: “You killed your brother.” Chase: “You are one hour ahead of the cops.” Western especially: “You look like a real cowboy.” Hence on, only the cliches survive, amonst which the photographer’s trompe-l’oeil paintings attract a child who seems to be the only one who still believes in them. That all of this can exist in the closed space of an amusement park on the edge of a beach – or on television, the action’s inevitable port of call, with the mother’s return – can only call out to us.The film indeed is an image of America playing for itself the pathetic version of the end of its dream. And Joey will he learned how to buy rides on the merry-go-round by getting the deposit of coca-cola bottle abandoned in the sand. Mirage of life, one could say. Six year’s later, Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life would begin, bitter, on an identical beach.

 

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