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1953 saw a number of interesting entrepreneurs with little previous experience "breaking into filmmaking" by making micro-budgeted shows of their own. Former Fox office boy Roger Corman and still photographer Stanley Kubrick set their sights on duplicating the subject matter of mainstream studios. But just one year before, an ambitious New York trio took an even more improvised path to the big screen. Their tiny feature Little Fugitive did something that few obscure imports or homegrown art cinema epics had achieved: it made money. The idea of the commercially viable "independent" American feature was born.
After the war, army cinematographer and magazine photographer Morris Engel met Ruth Orkin, who took photos in nightclubs and did baby photography after finding film industry work tightly locked up by the Guilds. They married, and then collaborated with children's book writer Ray Ashley (Abrashkin) on a modest feature about a boy that runs away from home and spends a day at Coney Island. At a cost of roughly $30,000, Engel filmed for most of a summer on the sunny boardwalk, using as his "star" a kid found on line for the carousel, seven year-old Richie Andrusco. As it turned out, little Richie is perhaps the most appealing, convincingly un-mannered child actor ever seen on a screen. Morris Engel's expressive camerawork combined with his partners' understanding of children make Little Fugitive a priceless gem of a picture. If the grimy little Richie doesn't capture your heart, then by all means reconsider having children.
When Mother (Winifred Cushing) must spend the night with a sick relative, she leaves the 6 year-old Joey (Richie Andrusco) in the charge of his 11 year-old brother, Lennie. Joey's presence ruins Lennie's plans to spend the day with his pals, leading the resentful older brother to pull a terrible prank. Joey is obsessed with cowboys and guns, and wants badly to play with a real air rifle. The older boys stage an accidental shooting, making Joey think that he's killed his own brother.
Believing that he's now an outlaw and must make his own way in the world, Joey tearfully boards a train that takes him to Coney Island. He spends the entire day there, riding the rides, having his photo taken and making friends with the attendant at the pony ride (Jay Williams). When his nickels and dimes run out, Joey learns how to cash in empty bottles. Scouring the beach for more treasure, he's perhaps thinking he can live on the boardwalk forever. In fact, he beds down on the sand under the boardwalk. Meanwhile, the responsibility-challenged Lennie isn't letting himself become too worried about his missing brother. That is, not until Mother calls and announces that she's on her way home...
Little Fugitive doesn't need excuses for its lack of big-studio trimmings. In fact, their absence is a major part of its appeal. The docu-like cinematography follows little Joey through the teeming mob on the boardwalk. He makes friends with a lovable photographer, and returns again and again to take the pony ride. By the end of the day Joey is indeed riding like a pint-sized Roy Rogers. Little Richie Andrusco's "acting" has everything that professional child actors lack. Engel and Orkin stage events that so consume Richie's attention that he's too busy to be self-conscious. He eats an oversized slice of watermelon and enjoys the various rides. The kid is fresh, he's adorable, and is easily distracted. Every once in a while his little confused face showw through, and we perhaps wonder if he's thinking about his "dead" brother and his own dark future. No, little Joey's brow just furrows like that when he's contemplating his next move. He's not yet capable of grasping the concept of noir-ish doom. Especially not in a world with all these entertaining Coney Island activities.
Joey/Richie's best sequence comes when he pays his money and steps up to try his skill in an automated batting cage. With his short legs and saggy pants Joey can barely hold onto the bat, and the balls come too fast for him. We see the frustration build on his face as he misses, spins out and falls down again and again. It's hilarious but also tells us more about the boy's character. No matter how humiliating his defeat, Joey doesn't cry and he doesn't give up. He's our kind of hero.
Little Fugitive also captures a glimpse of the past that a straight documentary cannot, a past being lived. We experience Coney Island through our fugitive hero, a specific kind of kid that may no longer exist on the mean streets of today's cities. Joey may be a gullible innocent but he's no goody two-shoes. Snooping around for empty bottles, Joey disturbs couples necking on the sand and under the boardwalk. He walks between the legs of the milling crowds as if they were giants. Volunteering to fetch some water for a mother (Ruth Orkin) with a baby, he must fight for a turn at a crowded water fountain. But when Joey spills the water on the way back, he just runs away. Cameraman-director Engel shoots the beach as if he were taking still photographs, documenting sundry details but also finding beautiful visuals, as with the slatted light beneath the boardwalk and the park rides silhouetted against the sky. One marvelous five-minute sequence is an account of a flash rainstorm. Water pools everywhere. The camera lingers to observe some black children crossing the half-flooded street, perhaps to await a bus to take them home. An older boy carries a younger sister, and they all look out for each other. It's an unstaged, beautiful moment.
Ruth Orkin's edit of the film includes plenty of fascinating observational material that doesn't advance the story. Little Fugitive ended up playing for 14 weeks in a Manhattan theater and was picked up for distribution across the country. It's been a favorite ever since, especially after being rediscovered on cable TV in the 1990s.
Kino Classics' Blu-ray of Little Fugitive is an excellent encoding of a 35mm B&W show that inspired a generation of independent filmmakers. Even the French New Wave filmmakers acknowledged Little Fugitive as an inspiration -- Kino includes a quote from François Truffaut in its promotional text. The movie was shot without lights and without sound equipment, yet has the look of fine B&W still photography. The post-dubbing, especially of Richie's voice, is very good. A harmonica dominates the music score, a simple choice that doesn't overwhelm the modest visuals.
The Blu-ray edition boasts several attractive extras. Morris Engel's commentary answers most of our questions, and a pair of docus focuses separately on him and Ruth Orkin. A trailer and photo gallery are included as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Little Fugitive Blu-ray rates:
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