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Thursday, October 9, 2014

Little Fugitive, a Brooklyn indie classic

Little Fugitive kicks off the BAMkids Movie Matinee series this Sunday. Curated by BAMcinématek, the series features classic and independent films not traditionally made for children, but that kids would enjoy. With an impact beyond cinema, these films have helped shape American culture. 

by Josh Cabat

What was the first example of a successful independent film in America?

Many historians and critics give the nod, at least in films of the sound era, to John Cassavetes’ Shadows from 1960. While there is no doubt about that film’s artistic and historical significance, a closer look reveals that the honor might much more appropriately be bestowed on Morris Engel’s basement-budget masterpiece, 1953’s Little Fugitive. Engel, who was born in Brooklyn, had come up through the ranks of New York’s Photo League and became interested in film under the tutelage of the legendary filmmaker and photographer Paul Strand. Profoundly influenced by the Italian neo-realist movement of the mid-1940’s, Engel, using non-professional actors, a camera rig of his own invention and post-production sound dubbing in the tradition of Rossellini and De Sica, created an unfettered, almost documentary style of visual storytelling. Not only is this the first great American indie film, then; it is also a bridge between Italian neo-realism and the French New Wave that followed. In fact, François Truffaut stated many times that without Engel’s work (which also includes 1956’s Lovers and Lollipops and 1960’s Weddings and Babies), the Nouvelle Vague might never have existed at all.

Little Fugitive centers on Joey, a 7-year-old boy who lives with his mother and older brother Lennie in Brooklyn. When Mom leaves for the day to take care of her mother, Lennie is left in charge. Lennie and his friends trick Joey into believing that he has accidentally shot and killed his older brother; Joey rushes home and, taking whatever money is around, lights out via subway to his dreamland of escape: Coney Island. At first, Coney Island is loud, overwhelming and terrifying to our little fugitive, but as the day goes on, Joey has many wonderful adventures; among these is his very first pony ride. The operator of the pony ride senses what has happened and calls Lennie, who has been scrambling to find his brother before Mom comes home. After a long search, the brothers are reunited just in the nick of time.

In watching the film, one can’t help but notice that Coney Island seems almost like a character unto itself. In shooting the majority of the film there with an unobtrusive and freewheeling camera, Engel creates an indelible portrait of multiracial American democracy at play. In doing so, Engel recalls films like King Vidor’s The Crowd and Harold Lloyd’s last great silent, Speedy, both from 1928. In these films, Coney Island becomes a temporary refuge from the constraints and difficulties of city life, a refuge that is open to one and all. And so, Engel’s little fugitive also finds that kind of refuge, and even the fulfillment of his cowboy dreams, among the crowd at Coney Island; it is touching that today, Coney Island seems to be among the last places in New York where everybody still comes to play and escape for a while. Engel captures that spirit perhaps more effectively than any other director, and in doing so, breaks new ground for the many filmmakers who followed.

Josh Cabat is a BAM Education writer, Young Film Critics instructor, and chair of English for the Roslyn (NY) public schools.

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