Cast & Crew
In Brooklyn, New York, seven-year-old Joey Norton is upset that his older brother, twelve-year-old Lennie, teases him and will not let him play the harmonica Lennie just received for his birthday. Lennie complains to his friends about having to look after his little brother during the summer while his mother works. Joey attempts to join Lennie and his friends, Charley and Harry, in a baseball game in the street, but they refuse to give Joey the bat. That afternoon in the apartment, the boys's mother receives a telephone call informing her that her mother is ill. As a result, she is forced to leave her sons alone overnight so that she can take the train to see their grandmother. This ruins Lennie's plans to go to the carnival at Coney Island the next day, as his mother insists that he look after Joey instead. Lennie and Joey's mother departs, leaving behind six dollars for groceries. Although Lennie agrees to play hide-and-seek with Joey, he only does this so he can slip away to be with his buddies. Lennie, Harry and Charley then read comic books to come up with ideas about how to get rid of Joey.
A little while later, Lennie takes Joey to a field where Harry is showing off his father's rifle. Harry lets Joey hold the gun, which he lies is loaded with real bullets. After pointing the weapon in Lennie's direction, Harry allows Joey to fire the gun. Lennie pretends to be shot, an effect aided by Charley's use of ketchup to simulate blood. Terrified that he has killed his brother, Joey is warned by Harry to hide from the police. After Harry gives him Lennie's harmonica as solace, Joey runs home, dons his toy gunbelt, takes the grocery money and runs away, eventually ending up at the Coney Island carnival. Joey is immediately entranced by the carnival and rides the merry-go-round, but when it plays the tune "Home on the Range," which Lennie had played on the harmonica earlier that day, he becomes disconsolate. Joey is then drawn to a photography booth where he thrusts his head through a cardboard cutout of a cowboy and has his picture taken. Joey dines on hot dogs, watermelon and cotton candy, perfects his swing at a batting cage and practices throwing a ball at milk bottles until he finally wins a prize. He is soon drawn to a pony ride but no longer has the money to pay, so he wanders onto the crowded beach and meets another boy, Hank, who is collecting bottles to exchange for money. Joey helps Hank but the boy is soon drawn away by his brother, John.
Joey continues collecting bottles until he earns twenty-five cents. He immediately uses this for his first pony ride, which is supervised by a man named Jay. Jay teaches Joey how to ride and entertains him with stories. Joey then returns to the beach to collect more bottles to pay for pony rides. He continues the process all afternoon until he becomes so adept that Jay allows him to ride the biggest pony on his own. When Jay asks Joey if he has any companions at the beach, the boy runs away. Some time later, Joey falls asleep under the wooden boardwalk and awakens in the morning to find the beach and carnival deserted. Joey wanders over to the pony ride again, where Jay pretends to hire him in order to get his name and address. Jay then telephones the apartment and informs a worried Lennie where to find his brother. Joey runs away, however, after he sees Jay conversing with a policeman.
Upon arriving at the carnival, Lennie writes notes to Joey in chalk everywhere there is blank space, instructing him to meet him at the parachute ride. Lennie decides to go on the ride and just as his parachute lifts, he sees Joey carrying a spotted balloon. When the ride is over, Lennie runs onto the crowded beach to follow the balloon and is disappointed when it rises into the sky. By the end of the day, a storm blows in and heavy rain starts to fall. This clears the beach and when the rain stops, Lennie finds Joey collecting bottles. Lennie tells Joey that his death was only a joke, and agrees to let his brother keep the harmonica until they get home. Lennie is greatly relieved to arrive just before his mother, and neither boy tells her what happened. She is so pleased to find them safe and sound that she promises to take them to Coney Island the next weekend. The brothers, now bonded by their experience, turn to each other and smile.
Best Writing, Screenplay
"We were just two people and I've always thought that two people could make a movie. All you need is a good camera and a halfway decent story. And I think this movie proved it...." Morris Engel
Morris Engel and his collaborator (and, later, wife) Ruth Orkin are hardly household names, but they are in many ways the proud parents of the American independent scene, birthed with their first film, the 1953 production Little Fugitive. Shot on a minuscule budget with non-actors on location (largely at Coney Island), the film chronicles the adventures of the seven-year-old Joey who panics after his brother perpetrates a vicious prank, making the little boy think he has killed him in a gun accident. Joey (Richie Andrusco, a kid Engel cast right from the streets) runs away to Coney Island where he gets lost in the crowds and takes refuge under the boardwalk. It's a more innocent time and there is little (if any) peril to his predicament, no more than the fear of losing his trousers when he abandons them to take a swim. When an overtly friendly employee at the pony rides starts to get chummy and then suspicious when he notices Joey keeps showing up without any parents, it's all out of genuine concern for a little boy lost.
Engel and Orkin are less concerned with story than character, and not just Joey. Little Fugitive takes place in a palpably real world: the concrete neighborhood of Joey's home has a life and character unique to it and Engel takes the camera into the crowds of Coney Island and through the weekend beachgoers off the boardwalk to capture the real life rhythms of New Yorkers and the atmosphere and energy of Coney Island in the summer. Some of the picture-perfect situations border on precious and the film runs largely on charm, but Engel's eye for people and landscape and social activity gives it a vibrancy that is still compelling. Much of the richness comes from the accumulation of real and realistic details, from the location shooting, the script rooted more in character than plot, and the easy, naturalistic performances from casts of non-professionals. The black and white photography is not gritty but does lend an authenticity to the production. A professional photojournalist, a former combat photographer and a lifelong street photographer, Engels brings a sensitivity to his images and compositions. While one tempted to dismiss Richie Andrusco's excellent central performance as lucky casting (he is always unselfconscious and not at all cloying), you have to wonder if Engel's work with models is responsible for a different perspective to directing actors.
Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin and Ray Ashley share directing and original story credit and double up on other production duties: Engel shot the film himself, Orkin learned to edit film on the fly (she shares credit with Lester Troob) and Ashley co-produces. Engel insisted on shooting on 35mm to get the image quality he felt was needed to compete with Hollywood films. In the commentary track that he recorded for the 1999 DVD release, he felt that at that time, 16mm film could not provide a professional quality image, at least in terms of Hollywood feature filmmaking. The key to shooting Little Fugitive on location was a portable 35mm camera designed by Engel and built by Charlie Woodruff. Engel was able to strap the camera to his shoulder and take it into the streets, into the crowds at the Coney Island midway, even into a batting cage as Joey wildly swung at every ball coming his way (Engel actually got beaned by one of the boy's sloppy hits; you can see the camera react ever so slightly but Engel keeps shooting). He eschewed the use of a tripod and still managed to keep a remarkably steady image in the era before the development of the Steadycam. Engel claims that another fellow filmmaker just breaking into the filmmaking business, an ambitious young director named Stanley Kubrick, was so impressed with his camera that he asked to rent it for his next production.
What Engel couldn't do with his skeleton crew (which was sometimes no more than two people) and portable equipment was record live sound, so he took a cue from the Italian Neo-realist filmmakers and shot the entire film without sound. Every line of dialogue was dubbed in the studio, which encouraged Engel and his screenwriters to include as little dialogue as they could get away with. You can see the imperfections of the dubbing here and there these were kids they cast off the streets, after all, not professionals with any kind of performance experience but overall it's an effective solution. The background sound was all foley work by professional sound editors, who did a terrific job of creating a vivid soundscape. Eddy Manson, who was making a name for himself as a virtuoso harmonica player on TV variety shows, was approached to compose and play the score as a budget-minded alternative to a traditional orchestral soundtrack.
Little Fugitive was almost abandoned to an indifferent marketplace, but good previews brought it to the attention of film importer Joseph Burstyn, who specialized in distributing foreign films. His aggressiveness got the film noticed and into the 1953 Venice Film Festival, where it won the Silver Lion. It even earned an Oscar® nomination for "Best Writing, Motion Picture Story." In 1997, it was inducted into the National Film Registry. But its greatest success is arguably as inspiration, a model for such filmmakers as John Cassavetes and Francois Truffaut to make their own films on limited budgets. In many ways, it also established the easy rhythms, feel for location, natural dialogue, and naturalistic acting that so many American independents have reproduced in their own ways since.
Engel and Orkin only made two subsequent features, both of them independently produced and directed: Lovers and Lollipops (1956) and Weddings and Babies (1958). But they both continued successful careers as photographers until the end of their lives. Orkin died of cancer in 1985 and Engel passed away in 2005, also from the same illness. But their legacy lives on in the spirit of independent filmmaking that they helped give birth to.
Producers: Ray Ashley, Morris Engel
Directors: Ray Ashley, Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin
Screenplay: Ray Ashley (screenplay and story); Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin (story)
Cinematography: Morris Engel
Music: Eddy Manson
Film Editing: Ruth Orkin, Lester Troob
Cast: Richie Andrusco (Joey Norton), Richard Brewster (Lennie Norton), Winifred Cushing (mother), Jay Williams (Jay the Pony-Ride Man), Will Lee (photographer), Charlie Moss (Harry), Tommy DeCanio (Charley).
by Sean Axmaker
Morris Engel (1918-2005)
Engel was born on April 8, 1918 in Brooklyn, New York to a family of very modest income. He became fascinated with photography as a child, being enamored by travel pictures he came across in brochures. When still in high school, he signed up for a $6 course at the Photo League and began roaming the streets of New York with his camera. He enlisted in the Navy during World War II and became a combat photographer, where he eventually found himself documenting the historic D-day landing at Normandy, France. After the war, he photographed for magazines such as Collier's and McCall's, and became respected for his work in photojournalism.
He met his wife, Ruth Orkin, also a noted photographer, in the early '50s. After their marriage in 1952, both Morris and Orkin expressed a desire toward filmmaking. The result was an innovative and daring film they wrote, directed and produced - The Little Fugitive (1953). The story, of a seven-year-old boy from Brooklyn named Joey (the wonderful Richie Andrusco), who believes he fatally shot his 11-year-old brother (Richard Brewster), and escapes to Coney Island to avoid punishment, was certainly modest in budget ($30,000) and execution. Yet for many film scholars, there was simply nothing like it to compare to at the time. Engel's capture of New York locations, fresh use of street sounds, hand held camera technique, and employing real New Yorkers as extras, made for something fresh and new. Indeed, when in 1959, both John Cassavetes and Francois Truffaut came onto the scene with their feature film debuts (Cassavetes for Shadows and Truffaut for The 400 Blows), both were quick to publicly praise Engel for starting an "independent" mind set for film direction.
Although Engel and his wife would create only two more films: the charming Lovers and Lollipops (1956), about a little girl who views the world of her elders with a precocious eye; and the lyrical drama Weddings and Babies (1958), regarding the pre-marital jitters of a professional photographer; their influence on Indie filmmaking cannot be overstated. After his wife's death from cancer in 1985, Engel did make two video documentaries, A Little Bit Pregnant (1993) and Camellia (1998). He is survived by a son, Andy; a daughter, Mary; two sisters, Pearl Russell and Helen Siemianowski; and a grandson.
by Michael T. Toole
Morris Engel (1918-2005)
Little Fugitive - LITTLE FUGITIVE - A Snapshot of Coney Island circa 1953
Francois Truffaut once wrote that "our New Wave would never have come into being if it hadn't been for the young Morris Engel..with his fine Little Fugitive" and it's easy to see the influence of Engel's film on Truffaut's directorial debut feature, The 400 Blows (1959), particularily in the sequence where Antoine Doinel runs away from home. Engel was a former still photographer who became a forerunner of the New York independent filmmaking movement with Little Fugitive. The film's remarkably fresh and improvisational style was unique for its time and won international acclaim, eventually winning the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival. It also was nominated for an Oscar for Best Motion Picture Story and in 1997 was inducted to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress and the National Film Preservation Board. Its success on the theatrical circuit allowed Engel to make two more highly original, offbeat films - Lovers and Lollipops (1955) and Weddings and Babies (1958); the latter film was particularly significant since it was shot on location in New York City using a portable synchronous sound camera.
One of the real surprises of Little Fugitive is little Richie Andrusco whose pugnacious manner and wide-eyed response to the overstimulation of Coney Island is a joy to behold. Where are you now, Richie? For those who purchase the DVD, you'll get an audio commentary by director Engel who fills you in on the genesis of the film and various production details. The other extra feature is the original theatrical trailer which should bring a smile to your face. For more information about Little Fugitive, visit Kino International. To purchase a copy of Little Fugitive, visit Movies Unlimited.
Little Fugitive - LITTLE FUGITIVE - A Snapshot of Coney Island circa 1953
Onscreen credits include the following written acknowledgments: "We wish to thank STEEPLECHASE and the CONEY ISLAND CHAMBER OF COMMERCE for their cooperation." This film was shot on location in Brooklyn and at Coney Island, NY. Co-directors Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin were married at the time of production. According to a 1954 interview with filmmakers Ray Ashley and Orkin, production costs were $87,000, of which $1,000 was spent on music; lead performer Richie Andrusco, who had never acted before, was paid $250 per week. An unidentified, but contemporary magazine article in the AMPAS Library file on the film, noted that Andrusco was "discovered" by Orkin and Engel while the boy was riding a carousel at Coney Island.
According to an article in Saturday Review (of Literature), the filmmakers consulted with child psychologists at the Bank Street School in order to evoke the most natural responses from their child actors. Little Fugitive was awarded the Silver Lion of St. Mark at the 1953 International Venice Film Festival and a Silver Ribbon for best non-Italian film of the year. The picture received nominations for an Academy Award for Best Motion Picture Story and Best Written Drama by the Screen Writers' Guild. A modern source quoted French filmmaker François Truffaut as stating that "Our New Wave would never have come into being if it hadn't been for the young Morris Engel...with his fine Little Fugitive." In a 1979 interview in New York Daily News, Engel said that Little Fugitive marked the first theatrical release of a film shot with a handheld 35mm movie camera.
Released in United States 1953
Released in United States 1997
Released in United States June 1996
Re-released in United States February 1, 2013
Shown at Nantucket Film Festival June 19-23, 1996.
Released in United States 1953
Released in United States 1997 (Shown at AFI/Los Angeles International Film Festival (Special Presentation) October 23-November 1, 1997.)
Re-released in United States February 1, 2013
Selected in 1997 for inclusion in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.
Released in United States June 1996 (Shown at Nantucket Film Festival June 19-23, 1996.)