It is entirely possible that John Cassavetes would not have become an independent filmmaker were it not for “Little Fugitive.” François Truffaut credited this influential movie with paving the way for the French New Wave.
Made in 1953 by three confident filmmakers, “Little Fugitive” is as much an invaluable filmic document of postwar New York as it is an enchanting incipient work of independent cinema.
Equal parts child character study and social exposé, “Little Fugitive” is about a seven-year-old boy named Joey who “goes on the lam” in Coney Island after his older brother pulls a gun prank that makes Joey believe he accidentally killed another boy.
The film’s screenwriter Ray Ashley taught in New York City public schools before working as the “education editor” for PM, a '30s-era leftist newspaper where photojournalist Morris Engel also worked before serving as a combat photographer in the Navy from 1941 to 1946. In 1952 Ashley, Engel and Engel’s soon-to-be-wife Ruth Orkin, also a photojournalist, turned their attention to making a movie that could compete with anything being produced in Hollywood. Independent cinema’s roots in socialist ideals were intrinsic to its origin.
The filmmakers utilized a cast of non-actors and shot the entire movie on a portable hand-held 35mm camera that Morris Engel designed and had built by Charlie Woodruff, a medical engineer. The trade-off was that the smaller camera was not outfitted to record sound. Only after filming did the filmmakers go back and loop in the audio, which the actors had to reproduce in a recording studio. Although the technique was popular at the time with Italian filmmakers, it was unheard of in Hollywood.
Siblings Joey (Richie Andrusco) and 12-year-old Lennie Norton (Richard Brewster) are a couple of Brooklyn boys living in a small apartment with their single mother. Lennie’s mom (Winifred Cushing) has promised to let Lennie go to Coney Island for his upcoming birthday when she’s called away to care for her sick mother. With Lennie left in charge of babysitting his little brother, the boys take to the streets to play with a toy rifle. Joey begs the older boys to let him fire the gun. Some well-placed ketchup convinces Joey that he has committed murder.
In a gleeful display of kid-logic Lennie tells Joey to run away until things “blow over.” Equipped with a few dollars in his pocket, Joey forgets his troubles when he gets to Coney Island and begins to sample everything the festive carnival beach atmosphere has to offer.
With his belt-holster and toy pistol, Joey rides the carousel, takes his tries in the batting cage, and eats his fill of sodas, cotton candy, and watermelon before discovering his true calling, riding on a pony led by a friendly cowboy. Down to his last dime, Joey discovers a capitalist solution to his dilemma of pressing poverty. He begins collecting deposit bottles to finance his newly discovered lifestyle. Happy crowds mill about. Lovers make out on the beach and make love under the boardwalk in an America lost in a dream of freedom. We are free to imagine the life-lessons that Joey will take away from his escapade as he is reunited with his mom and brother. Like the nature of the film, the theme here is wondrous independence.
Not Rated. 80 mins.
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