"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