Little Fugitive (1953)

[Note: The following review is of a non-Peary title; click here to read more.]

“Ya shot him, Joey! Ya shot your brother!”

Little Fugitive Poster

Synopsis:
A little boy (Richie Andrusco) who mistakenly believes he’s murdered his older brother (Ricky Brewster) flees to Coney Island, where he survives on his own until his brother finds him.

Genres:

  • Carnivals and Circuses
  • Childhood
  • New York City
  • Runaways
  • Siblings
  • Survival

Review:
It’s difficult to understand how Peary missed listing this unique little film in his book as must-see, given its significance on several levels — its cinematic influence on the French New Wave, its status as a “cultural window” into New York’s Coney Island in the 1950s, and its Oscar-nominated screenplay. The story of how husband-and-wife team Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin — with the assistance of a few friends and colleagues — made this cinema verite film on location in New York with a shoestring budget and amateur actors has gone down in cinematic history, as has Francois Truffaut’s quote that “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“. Most importantly, however, it is an enjoyable, finely crafted story, told simply but well.

It’s remarkably easy to forget that Little Fugitive (an exemplar of American neo-realism) is a fiction film, given how fully “invested” unknown Richie Andrusco is in the central role of Joey; it’s his ease in front of the camera that propels the story through its mostly wordless screenplay. Richard Brewster as Joey’s brother Lennie does a fine, natural job as well, as does Jay Williams (playing himself?) as Jay the Pony Man at Coney Island, who becomes Joey’s closest pal. At times the film’s ultra-low budget is glaringly apparent, especially when it comes to sound; indeed, the entire film was shot without sound, to save money, with dialogue dubbed in later, and Foley artists providing ambient sound. However, once you accept this limitation, it simply adds to the film’s overall charm. Another low-budget concession — Lester Troob’s harmonica-rich score in place of a “traditional” orchestral score — is a winning element as well, and quickly becomes a defining aspect of the film (I love how Joey later finds an abandoned harmonica on the beach, thus creating an additional meta-narrative tie to the score).

There are many memorable moments sprinkled throughout the movie: my favorites include Joey fooling around with an old-fashioned view camera while its operator is away processing a still (I love the cameraman’s reaction when he comes back to find Joey under the camera’s hood — he’s bemused rather than annoyed), and Joey carefully convincing an Asian baby on the beach to give up the glass bottle he’s been using as a sand toy. (Given that Engel and Orkin used “real” extras, the cultural mix of visitors is refreshingly authentic.) Equally fascinating, however, are the many “time capsule” shots — functioning as ambience rather than to propel the narrative — which simply show Coney Island as it once was, with lovers and families of all kinds out for a good time.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments: (check out the Morris Engel photo archive for some lovely stills from the film)

  • Richie Andrusco as Joey
  • Richard Brewster’s as Joey’s brother Lennie
  • Jay Williams as Jay the Pony Man
  • Fine on-location, hand-held cinematography
  • Many memorable, amusing sequences
  • An invaluable time-capsule view of Coney Island in the 1950s
  • Lester Troob’s harmonica-driven score

Must See?
Yes, for its historical significance as an Oscar-nominated, groundbreaking, influential independent film — and as an all-around good show! It was inducted into the National Film Registry in 1997.

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