LITTLE FUGITIVE B+
USA (75 mi) 1953 d: Morris Engel co-directors: Ray Ashley and Ruth Orkin
This is a small and often overlooked film that tends to fall through the cracks, rarely part of the discussion of Orson Welles in the 50’s or John Cassavetes in the 60’s when one recalls the history of American independent or low-budget films, where the film is listed here: AMERICAN INDEPENDENT FILM - Movie List on mubi.com, but not here: American independent films. Made for just $30,000 during the heyday of the studio system, the film is barely mentioned next to the influential, independently financed films made outside the studio system, such as Welles’s OTHELLO (1952) or MR. ARKADIN (1955), or experimental short films made prior to that. LITTLE FUGITIVE (1953) was the first independent feature to be nominated for an Academy Award, in this case Best Original Screenplay, while also winning a Silver Lion Award at Venice. Shot using a cinéma-vérité style, this American film predates most of Jean Rouch’s documentaries, one of the founding fathers of the style, and is often cited as having an influence on François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups) (1959), one of the seminal works of the French New Wave, while also having an impact on the Iranian New Wave films from the 70’s to 90’s that often sought to tell religious or metaphorical stories through a child’s eyes. Storywise, the film is something of a cross between The Cat in the Hat, a mischievous children’s book by Dr. Seuss that suggests pure anarchy exists while Mom’s away, and the Chaplin Silent era where the Little Tramp lives on the fringes of society, usually a victim of circumstances, often observing the exploits of people of privilege from the vantage point of a hungry Tramp having nothing at all. After Mom goes away for a 24-hour period due to an emergency medical situation in the family, she leaves behind two mischievous brothers who are instructed to stay home, 12-year old older brother Lennie (Richard Brewster) and 7-year old younger brother Joey (Richie Andrusco), leaving a few dollars on the table for food. But these boisterous kids are seen earlier continually hanging out on the cramped streets of Brooklyn, New York with other boys, exploring the vacant lots nearby, shooting guns at targets, and even playing baseball in the streets, perpetually hanging outside, only coming indoors when they’re hungry, so the idea of staying home all day seems beyond their capabilities.
As the youngest, the older boys continually pester and pick on Joey, usually trying to get rid of him, as they really don’t like him tagging along, a spoiled and often whiny, freckle-faced kid with dirt and slime constantly on his face with an everpresent toy gun in his holster, so they design a cruel hoax where it appears Joey has shot his older brother, using ketchup like they do in the movies. Believing the worst, suddenly wracked with guilt and afraid of all policemen, Joey is encouraged to high-tail it out of town “until the heat dies down,” suddenly feeling all alone in the world. Grabbing the money his mother left on the table, he hops on the subway, getting off at the end of the line, which happens to be Coney Island, wandering around alone, where the rest of the film is a somewhat mystifying, mostly wordless odyssey through an amusement park as seen through a child’s eyes, initially dejected, lost and alone, but eventually discovering the delights of the crowds, the funhouses, the merry-go-round, ball-throwing and shooting galleries, batting cages, cowboy photographs, pony rides, not to mention all the food vendors, where Joey can be seen eating to his heart’s content. Shot in Black and White, a minimalist film told in a naturalistic manner, the overall key to the film is using a portable, hand-built 35mm camera by Charlie Woodruff that could be strapped to the shoulders, designed by the cinematographer and co-director Morris Engel who refused to use a tripod, insisting upon the mobility of constant street movement, a remarkably effective technique that caught the eye of young American director Stanley Kubrick who wished to rent the camera and Jean-Luc Godard who wished to purchase it. Engel was able to hold a remarkably steady camera image long before the development of the Steadycam. Of interest, much like Italian Neo-Realism, the film was shot without dialogue, so every word of dialogue had to be re-synched back in the studio afterwards, where the earliest sequences suffer the most, resorting to predictably generic dialogue, while Engel’s wife Ruth Orkin co-edits the film, a first time experience for both of them, teaming up with a friend, Ray Ashley, to co-write, co-direct, and co-produce the film.
Joey eventually discovers the crowds at the beach, learning he can return disposable pop bottles for a cash refund, where he interweaves throughout the human throngs grabbing discarded bottles, receiving a nickel for each returned bottle, where the stark and somewhat downbeat realism of his existential wanderings often contrast with a few whimsical moments when he plays with even smaller kids. Joey’s real passion is the pony rides, which he returns to again and again, developing a friendly relationship with Jay Williams, the Pony Man, who eventually suspects something is up with a kid wandering around without any adult supervision, which only scares the poor kid off, where one of the most hauntingly beautiful scenes is the transition into nightfall Little Fugitive: Nightfall scene - YouTube (1:38), where the musical soundtrack throughout is Lester Troob’s lone harmonica, using “Home On the Range” as the movie’s musical theme. In the morning, Joey dusts himself off after spending a night outdoors and washes his face in the public fountain, copied identically by Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups). In the early hours when the beach is empty and there are no crowds, the Pony Man again befriends Joey, letting him help with the horses, trying to alleviate his suspicions, but also acquiring information where he obtains an address or phone number, getting ahold of Lennie who makes a beeline to the Pony Man at Coney Island, but Joey has again disappeared, where the camera follows Lennie in his search for his younger brother, oddly similar, but due to the age difference, less compelling, as Joey is the real star of the show, giving a heartbreaking performance that can’t be matched by anyone else, literally owning the audience’s sympathies. Veering back and forth between sidewalk shots and aerial views, giving a time capsule glimpse of Coney Island, there’s a gorgeously photographed rainstorm where people rush for cover, where the beaches empty and crowds hover under the bleachers waiting the rain out, reminiscent of an era when people had time to wait, where they weren’t rushing to get somewhere, but could simply wait out a storm. Afterwards, Joey is once again alone on the vast emptiness of the beach, engulfed by the enormity of it all, just a speck in the sand until his brother spots him, where of course no one makes any mention of an adventure when Mom returns home. The film was inducted into the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 1997.