The Little Fugitive: Coney Island and Film

Since we’re visiting Coney Island tomorrow, I wanted to post some material on Morris Engel and Ruth Okin’s influential  1953 masterpiece, The Little Fugitive. I’d hoped to find most, if not all of it, online somewhere; alas, I can only find a poor quality trailer on YouTube and a short clip from the first few moments of the film embedded in a TCM tribute (Engel died in 2005).

The Little Fugitive is a poignant and simple narrative which seamlessly captures a child’s point of view. Always at the mercy of those bigger and older, children are both naive and impressionable yet resilient and imaginatively canny. The film’s remarkable naturalism is achieved by the use of non actors, hand held camera rigs, and the DIY editing and post-production of first time filmmakers Morris and Orkin. Its also clear that Engel had a marvelous rapport with his “star”: he often spoke of seven-year-old Richie Andrusco as his “co-director.”  Testament to the film’s accomplishment is the impact it had on a generation of filmmakers: Truffaut, Kubrick, Cassavetes, Scorcese are among its many admirers. Truffaut even claimed the French New Wave would have been impossible without The Little Fugitive.

The story itself can be told in a few sentences. Joey Norton lives with his mother and older brother Lennie in a lower middle-class Brooklyn neighborhood. When their mother is called away, Lennie and his friends, always feeling pestered by the younger Joey, play an unintentionally cruel prank on him. While playing with cap guns they make him believe he has actually killed his brother and will soon be arrested. Terrified, Joey runs away—to Coney Island. But once there, the easy distraction of  childhood kicks in  and he spends the day wandering around, observing the canoodling adults, watching the arcade games, collecting deposit bottles for snack money and occasionally remembering that he is on the lam: a lonely and friendless outcast. The story ends happily however;  a pony-ride proprietor befriends Joey and tricks him into giving him his address. He phones the now penitent and frantic Lennie who is able to get Joey home safely with their mother being none the wiser.

In his Bright Lights Film Journal article, Gary Morris describes the film’s unusual production circumstances: “Engel and inventor Charlie Woodruff created a new kind of small portable 35mm camera to be strapped to the shoulder that would let him move unobtrusively through scenes but also give the shots a stable look that nearly rivaled the sacred tripod. This camera, which was coveted by Engel’s peer at the time, Stanley Kubrick, allowed him to film huge crowd scenes in which no one seemed to notice the camera, and the amazing POV shots in Coney Island inside a tiny batting cage, on a merry go-round-horse, or from the towering Parachute Jump.”

While you can Google up plenty of gorgeous stills from the film, both Morris and Orkin were accomplished photographers and photojournalists, its a pity there’s little online besides that dreadful trailer which hawks the movie as some kind of goofy kiddy flick. Watching that, you’d never expect to see anything like the “lovely wordless passage [where] Joey wanders across the beach after the storm…dwarfed by the enormity of the world around him and, one feels, by his own future,” described by Gary Morris. Nor would you imagine a film of great emotional resonance; while reading around online today I stumbled on a moving and fascinating IMdB thread. There, people were sharing memories of being frightened by the film as children, and talking about way the film summed up their own feelings of childhood inadequacy: “Issues like loneliness, not feeling wanted, wanting to run away, fear, not feeling loved, being without, and feeling different.”

—Mina Estevez


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