By Michael McNulty
Why not Celebrate Good Friday with a good film? Here’s this Friday’s Forgotten Film.
Written, edited and produced by Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin and Ray Ashley, Little Fugitive is a stalwart of American independent cinema. Using only their experience in photography and a miniscule budget they produced a film that was welcomed by audiences, enjoyed financial success, won a Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival and picked up an Oscar nomination, ultimately proving that films could be made without the interference of studios and be both a creative and financial success.
Seven year old Joey (Richie Andrusco) is left in the charge of his older brother, Lenny (Richard Brewster), whilst their mother goes on an overnight trip to visit their sick grandmother. Wanting not to be stuck with his little brother all weekend, Lenny and friends devise a harebrained plan to rid themselves of him. The plan: the boys trick Joey into thinking he’s shot and killed his older brother, whilst fooling around with a rifle. It is the kind of cruel plan that brothers are capable of thinking up, but not thinking through. A terrified and guilt ridden Joey, armed with a toy pistol, harmonica and 6 dollars grocery money, goes on the lam and hops a train to Coney Island, dodging coppers along the way.
Here Joey’s guilt disintegrates as the quickly as the touch of cotton candy to the tongue and he welcomingly falls into the fun fair world of Coney Island. The little fugitive burns through his cash repeatedly riding the carousel, playing ball toss and stuffing his face with hotdogs, popcorn and soda pop. When his money runs dry, Joey finds in himself the enterprising spirit of the true American, trading in empty bottles for nickels, an endeavour which funds his endless 2 for the price of 25 cents pony rides (Joey possesses an obsession with horses).
Little Fugitive offers little in the way of plot and what it does offer only works to serve the greater purpose of the film, which is to capture the spirit and people of New York’s Coney Island. Morris Engel, who photographed the film, has found a world of detail in Coney Island. The swirling crowds that push past little Joey as he rides, eats and walks, are real and Engel distils the vibrancy of the people and the personality of the location with documentary like realism.
The entire film was shot on location, sometimes with a crew no bigger than two; it makes excellent use of handheld photography and non-professional actors. It possesses a visual style that, although it lacks the grit, can be likened to the neo-realist films of Italy. Little Fugitive is a triumph, pumped full of charm, a wonderfully authentic take on a particular time and place as seen through the eyes of a child. Truffaut even credited this picture with helping to birth the French New Wave and noted it as a key influence in his first film, Les 400 Coups. Need more be said?