Directed by Morris Engel
For the opening credits of Ray Ashley, Ruth Orkin, and Morris Engel’s 1953 landmark, the plaintive strains of harmonica maestro Eddy Manson’s “Home on the Range” play over a crude sidewalk drawing of a horse-riding cowboy. It’s a moment of ironic pathos—a child’s outsized dreams of the vast American frontier expressed through the humble means available to lower-middle-class urban confinement—made doubly ironic by the passage of time: now 60 years old, Little Fugitive and its quasi-vérité narrative of a young boy’s wide-eyed journey through Coney Island appears like that sidewalk sketch, a seemingly artless rendering of a vanished world.
But the movie is far from artless, and no mere nostalgia trip. Often credited as the first major American independent—and cited by François Truffaut as the French New Wave’s principle inspiration—the film was largely conceived by Engel, a Paul Strand-mentored photographer who grew up in Coney. Little Fugitive views a child’s universe as founded on abandonment, fear, and wonder: far beyond supervision, Western-crazy, tagalong seven-year-old Joey (Richie Andrusco) leaves the confines of his neighborhood to revel in beach and carnival attractions, but only because he's been tricked into believing he’s killed his put-upon older brother Lennie (Richard Brewster).
Obvious pleasures derive from the film’s time-capsule documentation of Brooklyn regionalisms (“fellas,” “wuz,” and other patois feature heavily in the dialogue) and cultural institutions (Coney’s peak-era chaos has never been more lovingly detailed). Yet as with so many a cinematic treasure, Little Fugitive reveals its greater glory through universal resonances. Serving as his own DP and aided by a homemade handheld camera, Engel trains his eye on the simultaneously exhilarating and drowsy moments in which a child becomes lost to the world and found to himself—none more moving than Joey, all alone under the boardwalk, mesmerized by the sun shining through the slats as the whole world seems to pass overhead.
Opens February 1