Tuesday, April 21, 2009

PopFlix: Little Fugitive

"Little Fugitive" is a 1953 film by Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin, and Ray Ashley that many credit as the beginning of the American independent film movement.

The Studio System

Prior to the 1950's film production and distribution were controlled by six major studios. The films of this "studio system" were almost exclusively well-budgeted, shot on a set, and included star performers whose carefully nurtured popularity helped market the finished product. The limited variety of the stories and plots of these films were chosen for their broad appeal to assure the financial return on the investment. Very few producers, directors and actors had the resources to create films which didn't fit in the studio system business model.

Morris Engel, Street Photographer

Morris Engel was born in 1918 in Brooklyn, New York, the city that he loved, inhabited, and photographed for his entire life. Engel joined The Photo League in the year of its founding, 1936. The Photo League was begun in New York by Paul Strand initially to provide radical newspapers with photos of trade union activities. It quickly broadened its mission to photographing working-class communities. It was as an assistant on the production of Strand's 1942 film "Native Land" that Engel received his first and only lesson in film making.

Though he also worked as a protographer for popular magazines, Engel is best know for his photography of everyday street life in New York. Engel worked with a Hasselblad camera which allowed him to hold the camera discretely against his chest and photograph his subjects without intrusion. He pointed his camera at unknowing pedestrians, merchants, and children capturing undramatic but endearing moments of everyday life.
Engel's ambition was to create this same effect on film, which was impossible at the time because the tripod needed for 35mm movie cameras was both immobile and distracting to his subjects. Engel and fellow photographer Charles Woodruff modified a standard 35mm camera to make it lighter and attached a single strap which Engel wore around his neck and shoulder allowing him to hold the camera under his arm.

The Story of a Boy

"Little Fugitive" is the story of seven-year old Joey and his adventures in Brooklyn and on Coney Island. Joey is in the care of his twelve-year old brother Lennie, while their mother visits a sick relative. To break the boredom of a summer day, Lennie's friends persuade him into tricking Joey into believing that he shot and killed his brother.
After being taunted with the possible punishment he could expect, Joey takes the family food money and escapes to the amusement park at Coney Island.

Little happens at Coney Island that constitute plot, but Joey is followed scene by scene as he lives out his fantasies and learns to navigate the adult world. There is very little dialogue in the movie, all of which had to be added during editing. The power of the movie comes from the personality of Richie Andrusco, who portrays Joey, and from Engel's remarkable eye and patience in capturing street life. Each scene is filmed in such a way that individual frames could stand alone as photographs.
Engel also takes advantage of several instances in which situations unexpectedly occur which would otherwise have no purpose in the story. In one scene, Engel captures the reaction of the crowd as the body of drowned boy is brought to the beach. In another, Engel captures the chaos as a sudden storm sends the crowds running for protection. As the storm lifts, he uses the opportunity to great effect to film Joey walking the abandoned beach.

International Attention

"The Fugitive" inspired other directors, such as John Cassavettes, to pursue their vision for flim making outside of the studio system. Stanley Kramer, then a young director working on "The Wild One" reportedly wanted Engel's camera for himself. Most famously, Francois Truffaut credited Engel for inspiring the French New film movement: “Our New Wave would never have come into being if it hadn’t been for the young American Morris Engel, who showed us the way to independent production with [this] fine movie.” The impact of Engel's spontaneous approach to filming can be scene in Truffaut's 1959 masterpiece "The Four Hundred Blows".

The movie went on to be nominated for an Academy Award for writing and won a Silver Lion at the venice film Festival.


For articles about "Little Fugitive", click here and here.

For a gallery of Engels photographs, click here.

Below is the link to the trailer for "Little Fugitive"