“Our New Wave would never have come into being if it hadn’t been for the young American Morris Engel, who showed us the way to independent production with his fine movie The Little Fugitive,” — Francois Truffaut (The New Yorker.)
One of the earliest works in the American Independent film movement was The Little Fugitive, a film made by Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin, and Ray Abrashkin (aka Ray Asbury). Actually, at the time this film was made there was no movement. This was the beginning. A deceivingly simple and lyrical film about a young Brooklyn boy who runs away to Coney Island after being tricked into believing he killed his older brother has influenced future filmmakers such as John Cassavetes and Martin Scorsese. They shot the movie in Brooklyn and much of it at a Coney Island that does not exist anymore (Steeplechase Park, Parachute Jump), nor does the Brooklyn of the 1950s. The film works on various levels, as a romanticized and nostalgic look back, but more importantly on a human level, especially the relationship between the two young siblings. It’s a look at a simpler and innocent time that unfortunately has disappeared.
After viewing the film, you may think nothing much really happens except for a day in the life of the young runaway, Joey. Yet, he finds joy and delight in the engaging world of the Coney Island amusement park. He eats cotton candy, rides the merry-go-round, plays in the ocean, and watches a young couple neck under the boardwalk. The film is beautifully and unobtrusively made with a feeling of authenticity that draws you into this young boy’s world. The directors never let you forget you are looking at this all from the perspective of a seven-year-old’s point of view. All the candid scenes at the beach were filmed with a camera designed by Morris Engel, made mobile enough to be inconspicuously carried and unseen among the thousands of people on the beach, the boardwalk, and in the amusement park as it follows Joey on his journey.
To anyone who has ever had an older or younger brother, the story will hold a ring of truth. It’s summer, schools out and young Joey is hanging around with his older brother, Lennie, and his friends. The older boys do not want the kid tagging along, so one of Lennie’s friends comes up with a scheme that convinces Joey he shot and killed Lennie. Frightened by the consequences, they encourage Joey to run away. He first goes home and grabs some money his mother left by the telephone (Their mother had to leave the boys alone overnight because of an emergency with her own mother. Dad is deceased.) Joey then hops on the elevated train and rides to the last stop, Coney Island, a safe haven and a wonderland for little boys. With the few dollars in his pocket, Joey spends his time lost in the rides and sights of the well-known Brooklyn attraction.
You can see the influences this film must have had on a young Francois Truffaut. The lyrical quality, the affinity for young children, the long takes, the use of actual locations. Engel relishes the scenes at Coney Island as he, and we the audience, observe Joey as he moves about from the boardwalk to the beach and to the rides. Truffaut, in The 400 Blows, reflects this same sense of delight with his alter ego, Antoine Doinel.
Morris Engel, like his wife and co-director, Ruth Orkin (Ray Abrashkin, aka Ray Ashbury, is also credited as a co-director), was a still photographer and the film’s visual beauty validates the multi-talent behind the camera (he was also the cinematographer). Engel was born in Brooklyn and certainly familiar with the local landmark where much of the film takes place. Engel was trained at The Photo League, a cooperative of photographers who focused on social concerns and issues. Paul Strand, Bernice Abbott, and Ralph Steiner were a few of his colleagues. He later worked for PM magazine where he met Ray Abrashkin. Other magazines he worked for include Fortune, Ladies’ Home Journal and Collier’s. Engel also spent four years in the Navy as a combat photographer and was part of the Normandy invasion. He also assisted Paul Strand on his film “Native Land”, receiving one of his first tastes for filmmaking.
Ruth Orkin grew up in Hollywood and was undoubtedly familiar with the Hollywood filmmaking scene; her mother was silent screen actress Mary Ruby. Orkin was given her first camera at an early age and soon after began photographing her family and friends. At 17, she traveled across the country by bicycle, her destination the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. On the journey, she photographed the entire trip. A few years later, Ruth moved to New York permanently and began a career as a photographer, working first as a photographer at nightclubs and then for magazines, including Life. In 1951, Life sent Orkin to Europe on assignment. One of her stops was in Italy where she met an American woman traveling alone and took a series of photographs one of which became her most famous work. Upon her return to America, she married Morris Engel.
When Engel made known his intent to make a movie, Orkin thought he was crazy. At this time, in the early 1950s, independent filmmaking was in its infancy. The technology was exceptionally expensive for the individual to pursue. The three filmmakers all ended up doing triple duty or more on the film as director, writer, editor, cinematographer, and producer. Orkin also had a small part in the film.
Young Richie Andrusco (Joey) was an amazing find. He was a non-professional actor, moving among the crowds with assurance and naturalness that is rare for such a young child. According to IMDB, Andrusco did only one other acting job, in 1955, on a TV show called I Spy (not the 1960s Robert Culp/Bill Cosby series).
The Little Fugitive would win the Silver Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival in 1953 and was nominated as well for Best Screenplay Award from the Writer’s Guild and an Academy Award nomination for Best Story. Engel and Orkin made one other film, Lollipops and Lovers. Two years later, Engel made his last feature film, Weddings and Babies.
Here’s a 2002 article on Morris Engel.