The Films of Morris Engel 

On DVD, from Kino

The title of “first American independent filmmaker” seems to be thrown around quite a bit, often being assigned to John Cassavetes and his 1959 film Shadows, though the farther one looks back, the vaguer the term becomes and the more the possibilities increase (particularly in the silent era). While historian Foster Hirsch has bestowed the title upon Morris Engel and his 1953 masterpiece Little Fugitive, the veracity of such a statement is of no importance compared to the film itself and its undeniable influence on the generations of filmmakers who came after.

Co-directed by Ray Ashley and Engel’s wife Ruth Orkin, Little Fugitive delicately blends documentary realism and candid-camera style photography with a sparse, unobtrusive narrative, the combination of which recalls equally the light touch of early cinema actualities and 1940s Italian Neorealism. Engel’s background with the Photo League, as well as Orkin’s newsreel training during WWII, give the film’s portrait of New York City, and particularly Coney Island, a staggering, nostalgia-inducing authenticity.

Much like Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon and The White Mane, the sophisticated storytelling and dark undercurrents of Little Fugitive dismiss any notion of it being a “kids” film. After being tricked into believing he has killed his older brother, seven-year-old Joey (Richie Andrusco, part Opie and part Antoine Doniel) runs away to Coney Island, where he indulges in the unceasing carnival as a means of escapism. The film’s deeply intimate locale and unsentimental portrait of urban street culture look ahead to Shadows and Truffaut’s The 400 Blows while echoes of Engel’s Lovers and Lollipops — also included in the Kino box-set along with Weddings and Babies — can be observed in Louis Malle’s underrated Zazie dans le metro.

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