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A true classic of American Cinema Verite, "The Little Fugitive" works on
several levels. On one level, it's a magnificent portrait of New York, and
particularly Coney Island, during the early '50's, when New York City, if
you were a kid, was truly a magic place. Anyone growing up in that period
can easily identify with the fun and wonders to be seen at Coney when you
were a kid and had the day free and money to spend from turned-in pop
bottles (Remember those?). Professional photographers, the husband-and-wife
team of Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin told a simple story with an eye toward
preserving, on film, a way of life that would disappear in just two decades
time, and in such an involving way that you feel yourself becoming part of
it. All that's missing is the salt air and discarded popcorn
Now to the performances, every one of them a gem. Rickie Brewster and especially little Richie Andrusco as Lennie and Joey, two boys with no previous acting experience, give natural, ingratiating performances as the two brothers at the center of the story. One wonders whatever happened to them, and if, in fact, they're still recognized almost 50 years later. As to the adults, most of them New York-based stage actors, Winnifred Cushing, as the boys' mother, come off as just a bit too arch to be really likeable, but Jay Williams, in the main adult role of the ingratiating pony ride man, more than makes up for it with an enjoyable, lively performance. And see if you can recognize a very young Will Lee, aka "Mr. Hooper" from "Sesame Street," as the photo booth man who lets young Joey help him out.
In short, "Little Fugitive" is not only great as a movie, but also as an evocation of a time and place that lives only in the memories of those who were there.
Little Fugitive is a pleasant little film set in a more innocent time.
The children that play Joey and Lennie act naturally and are
light-years away from the gee-whiz-freckle-faced "kids" that usually
inhabit films. There is a documentary, unjudgemental feel to the film,
with not an ounce of condescension in the whole film. There are very
few adults in the film, and when there are adults, they are presented
as slight irritations to the children.
The story concerns two brothers who are forced to spend a weekend together because their single mom has to go an care for her mother. Lennie, the older boy, has to look after little Joey, despite the fact that he wanted to spend his Saturday at Coney Island. Early in the film, Lennie and his friends trick Joey into thinking that he killed his big brother, just to get rid of him. Joey, panic-stricken, runs off and hops on a subway (think 1953--Way Safer) and goes off to Coney Island. It is at this point that the film flexes its creative muscles. great b&w photography, interesting angles, wistful harmonica soundtrack, and a episodic, poetic narrative. Watch this film. its a keeper.
In the summer of 1952 an accomplished still photographer from Brooklyn
named Morris Engel got together with his photographer - wife Ruth Orkin
and friend Ray Ashley to collaborate on the making of a small
Made on a shoestring budget using an innovative , lightweight 35mm camera , Engel and company proceeded to spend a few months filming the story of a 7 year-old boy who escapes to Coney Island for a day and a night after being led to believe that he killed his own brother. The resultant film , LITTLE FUGITIVE , was turned down by every major distributor . Photographed in black and white and with a running time of a mere 80 minutes , the bigger releasing corporations looked down on this picture as if it were an alien product , an unappetizing little "stinker" that boasted very little dialog ( and what there was of it was post-synchronized in a studio) ; that employed a single harmonica for a background music score ; and last but not least had a mundane setting of Brooklyn row houses and declining Coney Island for a setting.
The production's uncertain future was rescued when Joseph Burstyn , an American distributor of prestige foreign films , decided to give the movie a chance. That decision led to LITTLE FUGITIVE winning the Silver Lion for best direction at the Venice Film Festival.
This utterly charming , simple tale of a little boy's adventures at Coney Island belies the arduous work behind the camera that resulted in a bona fide American classic. Ashley , Engel and Orkin's original screenplay centers on a small group of young boys , particularly 12 year old Lennie and his younger brother Joey. The fulcrum on which the story's lever turns involves Lennie and Joey's mother having to leave home unexpectedly to look after their ailing grandmother. Lennie's plans to take a trip to Coney Island with his friends is thwarted because of this. In response to his protests ,Lennie's mother tells him that he has to stay home and take care of Joey , that he's "the man of the family" now (the father is absent) and that Coney Island will just have to wait . A disgruntled Lennie takes up his baby sitting duties begrudgingly , and is none too appreciative when little Joey tries to appease his anger with the gift of an old , battered baseball as a birthday present.
In a later conversation with his friends , fueled by the fantasies of comic book reading , Lennie is given suggestions on how to get rid of his little brother so the gang can go to Coney Island. A plan is conceived , a real rifle is obtained , and a mock murder takes place , with a panic-stricken Joey,having been shown how to shoot a rifle by one of the boys , thinks he has murdered his brother. In tears, Joey runs home, hides in a closet , but soon climbs out an apartment window and onto the streets of Brooklyn , convinced , in the word's of one of Lennie's friends , that he'll "fry " in the electric chair. Seeing a neighborhood cop around the corner doesn't help ,so Joey hops on a subway car : Last Stop , Coney Island.
Back at the apartment , a nervous Lennie arrives to find his brother missing , having no idea Joey is headed alone to the amusement paradise.
The aforementioned scenes , which comprise about the first third of the film , are the heaviest dialog - wise. All the young actors are remarkably natural , and they render the obviously scripted words convincingly. If LITTLE FUGITIVE has any fault at all , it is in these introductory scenes ; the dialog ,as written , is somewhat flat . However , the sequences move swiftly , and the movie really takes off once Joey arrives at Coney Island.
Here is the heart of this movie , an extraordinary , extended episodic adventure of one child's day at Coney Island. And here is where Richie Andrusco , who plays Joey , really shines. This remarkable little boy , who seems to be one half angelic choirboy , the other half full of the devil , is truly a real find. Discovered by the film team riding the Coney Island Steeplechase Carousel , director Engel was impressed with the boy's "animal strength". Employing a nonprofessional is a risky venture and LITTLE FUGITIVE nearly succumbed to disaster when early in the filming Richie decided he didn't want to play Joey anymore. In an inspiring moment of chutzpah , Mr. Engel asked Richie what he would like to do , and then gave the kid money to go on any rides or games he wanted to play , plied him with endless amounts of food and drink ( soda pop , hot dogs , cotton candy and watermelon , enormous amounts of which must have been consumed during the June through September shoot ! ) In essence , as Engel has stated many times in the past , Richie Andrusco pretty much directed the narrative course of this picture himself , Engel following in tow , his tripod - less camera hung around his neck , capturing the character Joey's every move.
Joey's adventures and travails are resolved rather predictably at the end , and the scripted dialog once again takes over ,still somewhat stilted and flat . But it hardly matters , because Morris Engel has taken the viewer on a journey into the heart of one irresistible little boy , and in the process has recaptured for the tired old adult in us the chance to experience the curiosity , joy and terror of childhood once again.
A magical little movie about a boy who runs away to Coney Island after
thinking he's accidently killed his older brother. It's almost a silent
movie, as the younger boy escapes by playing games and collecting bottles
off the beach and his brother looks for him in vain among the endless
Island crowds. Not much happens but it's all very watchable. It probably
already felt nostalgic to audiences the year it was released.
It's too bad more modern kids haven't seen this movie. They'd probably be able to see themselves in Richard Brewster and Richie Andrusco a lot more than in any of the underwritten Hollywood brat parts in mainstream kid-friendly movies. ***1/2 out of ****
"The Little Fugitive" is less a movie than it is an immaculately pristine and wistful time-capsule of the '50's. A self-exiled 7-year-old wanders an amusement park in a now long-lost world free--relatively speaking--of child-molesters and out-of-control tort lawyers. Filmed on location on Coney Island, using only its crowds and beach as it was in the Summer of 1953, and not a phony backdrop or clueless extra anywhere in sight. In high-quality black & white that misses nothing.
Generally credited as one of the pioneers of independent cinema (as far as
making your own film your own way and still getting seen in theaters),
Morris Engel used his background as a New York City photographer to bring a
fresh, down-to-earth feeling to filmmaking. Engel and his wife,
photojournalist Ruth Orkin, wrote, directed, produced and edited their own
low-budget films, shot by Engel using a hand-held 35mm camera of his own
The first of their three films, LITTLE FUGITIVE, is a beautiful, innocent film about a seven-year-old boy who is tricked by his older brother and runs away to Coney Island with six dollars. As the boy interacts with his new world on the boardwalk, Engel really transports the viewer there. The film feels like a documentary: sparse dialogue, realistic acting, hand-held cinematography and real locations. The FUGITIVE actors and atmosphere never come off fake: as the boy is hitting baseball in a batting cage, one hit ball flies towards the camera and you find yourself jumping out of the way!
The actor doesn't stop with this film "mistake", he's having fun and keeps going. All the childhood loves are there: bottles in the sand, hot dogs and cotton candy, ponies and parachute rides. With their films, Engel and Orkin created folklore, paving the way for directors like Truffaut, Godard, Cassavetes and Leigh.
FUGITIVE was successful for a non-studio film in the '50s, playing to over 5,000 theaters.
This movie has great value in so many ways. I'd like to comment on only
one of them. One of the things that might make a young person skeptical
about this film is that a seven year old could wander Coney Island without
fear. The '50's was a unique time in American history. The awakening of
the social conscience of the 60's was ahead, and the horrors of WWII were
behind. It was, in many ways, a time when Americans lived in relative
personal safety and a kind of innocence. One of the things that might make
a young person skeptical about this film is the idea that a seven year old
could wander Coney Island without fear.
About the time this film was made I was living in Los Angeles. I became
separated from my mother and lost on the bus system. In the afternoon a
asked what the problem was. He called my mom and waited for her to come
me. I remember I was on Hollywood Blvd., near Vine. I was
We need to remember the innocence as well as the guilt.
Talk about a movie with a different feel to it!
It looks like a home movie with real people, not actors. Actually, it almost is that, as these were new actors filmed by new filmmaker managing on a threadbare budget.
The little boy in the film, Richie Andrusco, was the central character and he had never acted before and has never acted after this film! No wonder he looked so "real." Most of the people in the film - at least in the background - were real people, not actors, so you really get a feel of being in New York City and Coney Island in particular in the mid 1950s.
The story is a simple one, about a kid who thought he killed his brother and runs away, spending a night and two days at Coney Island. It shows how a kid that age probably would spend his time at this place. You almost have to fast-forward through a couple of scenes as they go on too long, such as the boy picking up bottles to return for cash.
This movie is real curiosity piece. It's not a film you would watch over and over but it's definitely worth at least one look.
A brilliant masterful one of a kind film. Morris Engel's beautiful
photography and Ruth Orkin's talented editing take this film to heights
rarely seen. An innovative camera allows for a `documentary/candid'
to this film about a 6 year old boy (Richie Andrusco) who runs away to
Island because he thinks he accidentally killed his brother. Beautifully
composed shots under the boardwalk a images never to be forgotten. For any
serious film student (in fact for anyone) this is a `must
French New Wave cinema must be incredibly indebted to this poignant, sensitive and insightful film.
Suffice it to say, during these tumultuous days of politics, greed,
inhumanity and countless other murky words describing our sign of the
this film made me feel like a child again.
I'm a proud New Yorker and the Coney Island setting was very real to me. Little Richie Andrusco performed as though unaware of the camera capturing his every waver, dislike and amusement. A truly adorable child who by now is probably someone's grand-daddy!
The reviews I've read, have all concluded it similarly, "...once you see it, you'll never forget it."
Bravo, to all independent movie producers/directors!
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