• Industry

Out of the Vaults: “Little Fugitive”, 1953

When navy combat photographer Morris Engel decided to make Little Fugitive in 1953, there was no such thing as an independent film made outside the studio system. “My wife grew up in Hollywood and worked as a messenger at MGM, so she knew all about how films were made,” Engel explained at a screening of his movie at Brooklyn College. “When I told her that I was going to make a film, she told me that it couldn’t be done. We started work on the film and our film editor quit, so I asked Ruth if she would edit our dailies. She resisted, but pretty soon she fell in love with the material and edited it for us and did a fantastic job. Because she had worked in Hollywood, where her mother was a silent-screen star, she knew all about continuity and film editing, which was lucky for us because we didn’t have a clue!”

Engel, his wife Ruth Orkin, and Ray Ashley who wrote the screenplay are the credited directors of the film which is shot in black and white with a simple story that focuses more on character than plot. However, what’s groundbreaking about their effort is that they pioneered independent film in the US and are credited with influencing the French nouvelle vague cinema. “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,” said François Truffaut in an interview in the New Yorker. Indeed, the influence is clear in Truffaut’s directorial debut The 400 Blows, as it is in John Cassavetes’ first film Shadows. Both films were released in 1959 and borrowed heavily from Engel’s style of handheld camerawork shot on the fly, with realistic settings, natural dialogue and non-actors.

In the movie, seven-year-old Joey (Richie Andrusco) runs away from his home in Brooklyn after his big brother Lennie (Richard Brewster), tricks him into believing that he has killed him while playing with a gun. Their widowed mother is away from home, and the terrified Joey grabs the $6 she left for groceries and gets himself on the subway to Coney Island. There, like a typical child, he forgets his worries and runs around the boardwalk, riding the steeplechase carousel and reaching for the brass ring, eating hotdogs and watermelon, trying his luck at the arcade games and batting cage. The pony rides are a powerful attraction at the point when he realizes he’s run out of money, whereupon he hits on an ingenious solution to get more. The little star does all these things in an utterly unselfconscious and charming way, and the viewer is treated to a slice of history in the depiction of 1950s-era Coney Island, a more innocent time when children were in no danger when they were alone. Viewers will see the Tornado, Parachute Jump, Gyro Globe and Wax Museum, as well as the still-existing Wonder Wheel.

Engel devised a 35mm camera that was strapped on his body so he could follow the child around in an unobtrusive way, capturing the real rhythms of his Brooklyn neighborhood and residents, as well as the Coney Island summer crowds, all unwitting extras. There was a script, but the Coney Island scenes, which are fully two-thirds of the film, had to allow for spontaneous action by the child as he sees the world through his eyes, beautifully filmed by Engel. Indeed, the cinematography is absolutely remarkable as Engel captures light and shadows under the boardwalk, the vistas of the beach during the day and night and even in the rain, with closeups of Joey, sometimes despondent, sometimes joyful. The film is delightful and it has everything to do with the little boy and Engel’s camera.

The camera was a precursor to the Steadicam which had not yet been invented. Stanley Kubrick was so taken by it, he rented it from Engel for his next film. Also, in the Engel archives is a letter from Jean-Luc Goddard to him which says in part: “Unfortunately, I have been kept busy by the editing of my last movie; and I won’t be able to come to New York to discuss with you for the camera before two or three months. So I am sending to you Raoul Coutard, my operator, who will, if you agree, just have a look at your camera from his technical point of you. After that, I shall keep in touch with you to come to an agreement together about that camera.”

Sound couldn’t be recorded live with this way of filming, so the entire film was dubbed in post-production, including dialogue and ambient sounds. Therefore, Engel kept the dialogue to an absolute minimum; the boys’ dialogue in post ends up sounding a bit stagey. The very effective soundtrack is mainly a solo harmonica played by Eddy Manson, a harmonica virtuoso who composed for and played on various television shows. The movie was shot for $30,000 and eventually grossed $162,373 worldwide in theatrical exhibition.

After good reviews, Little Fugitive was screened at the 1953 Venice Film Festival where it was nominated for the Golden Lion and won the Silver Lion. It was then nominated for an Oscar for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story in 1954. The National Board of Review included it in its list of top ten films of 1953.

In 1997, it was inducted into the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress and the National Film Preservation Board for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Engel and Orkin continued their photography careers till their deaths. They made two more indie movies together – Lovers and Lollipops in 1956 and Weddings and Babies in 1958.

At a film screening when the movie was revived in 2013, Andrusco said he was discovered by Engel in Coney Island where he was riding the carousel with his brother. In the audio commentary on the DVD version, Engel talks about working with the children, the filming of the gun scene, the real-life drowning scene on the beach which was cut out of the television version, and the fact that Ohio censored the film for the line, “You’re lying on my pants,” which is said by Lennie after he comes back from a swim to see his pants hidden under the beach towel of a couple.

The film was restored and mastered in HD from a 35mm print preserved by the Museum of Modern Art with support from The Hollywood Foreign Press Association, The Film Foundation, The National Endowment for the Arts and the Celeste Bartos Fund for Film Preservation.