Bright Lights Film Journal

Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin’s <em>Little Fugitive</em> Escapes to DVD

A breakthrough indie and a crash course in no-budget film production

Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin’s groundbreaking 1953 indie, Little Fugitive (reviewed more extensively elsewhere in Bright Lights, along with the directors’ two other films, Lovers and Lollipops andWeddings and Babies) has just been released by Kino Video in a sharp DVD transfer. Previously available, along with the other two, on VHS, Little Fugitive on DVD has the theatrical trailer and a wonderful running commentary by Morris Engel, making it well worth purchasing for those who’ve taken the plunge into the new medium. (And if you haven’t, this is a good place to start.)

The filmmakers once despaired of even getting a release for their first film, a simple, poignant story of a young boy’s trek through Coney Island; now it’s become quite familiar to a wide audience through video reissues and frequent appearances on cable TV (American Movie Classics).

On the DVD’s commentary, Engel provides a model for the modern independent director by describing in fascinating detail the film’s unusual production circumstances. For Little Fugitive, 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.

For wannabe indie directors, the commentary is a goldmine of information on subjects from post-synching dialogue to how to add sound effects to the vagaries of niche distribution, an often dire situation that apparently has changed little since the early 1950s. Best of all is Engel’s energetic DIY attitude. Frequently faced with recalcitrant professionals (like an editor who strung him along before suddenly quitting), Engel and Orkin ended up doing much of the work, including the editing, themselves, learning on the fly.

Engel has nothing but praise for his actors, particularly Ricky Brewster, who gives a strikingly realistic picture of older brother Lennie, and the phenomenal seven-year-old Richie Andrusco, whom he credits as a codirector. The film’s unerring sense of realism can partly be attributed to Andrusco and Brewster’s ingenious bits of business and sometimes their invention of whole scenes after a mere bare bones instruction from Engel. Of course, production didn’t always run smoothly. Engel clarifies a strange moment in the scene in the batting cage. Apparently Richie hit Engel, who was shooting inside the cage, with a baseball, which is obvious from a slight jump in the image and a brief look of shock on Richie’s face. Both took it in stride.

Much of what happened on this magical film was a combination of luck and instinct – finding the right actors, coming on sudden dramatic events like a drowning at Coney Island – and the modest Engel says as much. The result is one of the most intriguing films of its time and a rightly honored landmark of the early American indie movement. Francois Truffaut may not have been exaggerating when he said “Our New Wave would never come into being if it hadn’t been for the young American Morris Engel … with his fine Little Fugitive.”