Little Fugitive (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)
April 7, 2013 by Dennis Amith
“Little Fugitive” is one of those magical classics that you simply love because it captured American innocence. It captured the real actions of people at Coney Island and it also caught a glimpse of that Coney Island magic that no longer exists. But it’s also a wonderful American independent film that was inspiring to filmmakers because it showed how one can create a film, with not much money but yet have an impact on viewers all over the world. Delightful, entertaining and wonderful, Morris Engel’s “Little Fugitive” is highly recommended!
TITLE: Little Fugitive
FILM RELEASE: 1953
DURATION: 80 Minutes
BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: 1080p High Definition, 1:33:1 aspect ratio, LPCM 2.0 Mono
COMPANY: Kino Classics/Kino Lorber
Release Date: March 26, 2013
Directed by Ray Ashley, Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin
Written by Ray Ashley, Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin
Screenplay by Ray AShley
Produced by Ray Ashley, Morris Engel
Music by Eddy Lawrence Manson
Cinematography by Morris Engel
Edited by Ruth Orkin, Lester Troobe
Richard Brewster as Lennie
Winifred Cushing as Mother
Jay Williams as Pony Ride Man
Will Lee as Photographer
Charlie Moss as Harry
Tommy DeCanio as Charley
Richie Andrusco as Joey
Widely regarded as one of the most influential and enjoyable films of the American independent cinema, Little Fugitive is an utterly charming fable that poetically captures the joys and wonders of childhood. When a seven-year-old boy (Richie Andrusco) is tricked into believing he killed his older brother, he gathers his meager possessions and flees to New York’s nether wonderland: Coney Island. Upon and beneath the crowded boardwalk, Joey experiences a day and night filled with adventures and mysteries, resulting in a film that is refreshingly spontaneous and thoroughly delightful. ACADEMY AWARD NOMINEE – BEST STORY (Original Screenplay)
For photographer Morris Engel, covering life was his job. As a combat photographer during World War II and an active Photo League member, he and his girlfriend at the time, fellow professional photographer Ruth Orkin (best known for her photo “American Girl in Italy”) and colleague, writer Raymond Abrashkin (who would go on to co-create/write the popular sci-fi series “Danny Dunn”), decided to create their own film titled “Little Fugitive”.
Created for only $30,000 with normal people as actors and shot on location in New York and a custom-made concealed strap-on 35 mm camera in Coney Island, “Little Fugitive” was created and would receive critical acclaim. And the creation of his own camera for filming would inspire other filmmakers to create their own cameras.
Even legendary French New Wave filmmaker Francois Truffaut has credited “Little Fugitive” as an inspiration to his 1959 masterpiece “The 400 Blows” and saying, “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.”
Considered as one of the most successful American independent films, “Little fugitive” would receive an Academy Award nomination for “Best Writing, Motion Picture Story” and a Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
In 1997, “Little Fugitive” was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
In 2008, Kino released the Morris Engel box set which included his films “Little Fugitive”, “Lovers and Lollipops” and “Weddings and Babies”. And on March 2013, “Little Fugitive” received a Blu-ray release with the film mastered in HD from a 35 mm print preserved by the Museum of Modern Art with support from The Film Foundation, The National Endowment for the Arts and the Celeste Bartos Fund for Film Preservation.
“Little Fugitive” revolves around a seven-year-old boy named Joey (portrayed by Richie Andrusco). All Joey wants is to be around his older brother Lennie (portrayed by Richard Brewster) and show that he’s old enough to take part in the games with the neighborhood kids.
Because Lennie is celebrating his birthday, he plans to go out with his friends to Coney Island. But when he gets home, his mother receives bad news that their grandmother is not doing well. So, his mother (portrayed by Winifred Cushing) needs to leave for the day to visit her mother, while Lennie is reminded that he is the man of the house, since their father had died, and he must watch over Joey.
This upsets Lennie, because he really wanted to celebrate his birthday at Coney Island and wants to leave Joey behind, but his mother tells him that they will go to Coney Island some other time. But he must watch over Joey as she has to leave for a day. As for Joey, he teases his older brother that he can’t go without him.
When Lennie tells his friends that they are not going to Coney Island because he has to watch over Joey, the kids come up with a joke. To use a rifle and have Joey shoot the rifle and make him think that he killed his brother Lennie, and so Joey would go back home, while Lennie and the guys can go to Coney Island.
While the plan was a success, for young Joey, he now thinks he is a fugitive from the law because he killed his brother and decides to go to Coney Island alone. Missing his older brother and sad for what he thinks he had done, Joey tries to survive in Coney Island whichever way he can.
“Little Fugitive” is presented in 1080p High Definition (1:33:1 aspect ratio) and in black and white. It’s important to remember that “Little Fugitive” is a low budget film that was made was a custom-made 35 mm camera that had its own issues during filming.
Having owned the previous DVD release from Kino, the main differences you will see is more detail and better contrast of whites and grays with better black levels. While the original print has not been cleaned up of its white specks, I’m not sure if the original print was even possible to have been cleaned of its imperfections but still, the picture quality is an improvement over its DVD counterpart. The film is mastered in HD from a 35 mm print preserved by the Museum of Modern Art with support from The Film Foundation, The National Endowment for the Arts and the Celeste Bartos Fund for Film Preservation.
For the most part, picture quality is very good, much better detail on the Blu-ray release as one would expect. The DVD also had some color fluctuations and was slightly darker but picture quality is definitely improved in this Blu-ray release.
AUDIO & SUBTITLES:
“Little Fugitive”is presented in LPCM 2.0 mono. It’s important to note that the film was shot and dialogue added later. Dialogue and music is clear. There is no noticeable hiss or pops during my viewing of the film. There are no English subtitles.
“Little Fugitive” features the following special features:
- Audio Commentary by Morris Engel – An insightful audio commentary by Morris Engel discussing the making of the film.
- Morris Engel: The Independent – (28:38) Featuring a 2008 documentary by Mary Engel about her father. Featuring his life and professional career with video of her father.
- Ruth Orkin: Frames of Life – (18:19) A 1995 documentary featuring the work of Ruth Orkin and audio featuring Ruth discussing her work.
- Theatrical Trailer – (1:52) The original theatrical trailer for “Little Fugitive”.
- Image Gallery – Featuring 16 images of promotional artwork to movie stills.
When I was a teenager, I used to watch “Little Fugitive” on cable television. Having searched for the film, after forgetting the title, by the time I would rediscover “Little Fugitive”, I was already in my 30’s.
With a big interest in French Nouvelle Vague and the work of Francois Truffaut, during my research one day about American independent films, I would discover a quote from Truffaut about a film titled “Little Fugitive” and how the film inspired him to create his independent masterpiece “The 400 Blows”.
Suffice to say, I was overjoyed to find out that the little boy who was in Coney Island turned out to be “Little Fugitive” and it has been one of my favorite releases from Kino and now this wonderful film has been released on Blu-ray.
I absolutely loved “Little Fugitive” as it not only captured the innocence of a child, but also the adventure through Coney Island, capturing on camera, the excitement of the area of that time.
While Coney Island has been marred through controversy and many discussions of revitalizing the area, while its heyday was before the 1940’s, “Little Fugitive” would still capture the amusement park in its glory before going through significant changes in the ’60s.
But the charm of the film is not just about capturing the heyday, but seeing Coney Island through the eyes of a seven-year-old boy. Yes, the film had a script and was carefully planned out, but its the ability to capture this natural feeling of a boy just enjoying his time at Coney Island and not acting as if he was in a film.
The film was also inspiring because filmmaker and cinematographer Morris Engel utilized a concealed 35 mm camera. I’ve seen concealed cameras used in French and Italian films but to see it employed in an American independent film and many people from Coney Island not knowing they are in the film, I thought that was pretty amazing, especially how he captured young actor Richie Andrusco, who seemed to have forgotten about the camera and just being a normal boy, the character of Joey now becoming real to viewer as the experiences were natural and felt real.
But this was guerrilla filmmaking on a budget and it’s amazing to see how much was captured and done for $35,000. Watching it now, you can’t help but be impressed.
As for the Blu-ray release, the special features are the same as the previous DVD. So, there is nothing new added. But with that being said, I know with this Blu-ray release, many fans will be introduced to Morris Engel’s work for the first time through “Little Fugitive”.
The audio commentary with Morris Engel was recorded before his death in 2005 and the commentary is just full of interesting facts. From how it was to work with the young Richie Andrusco and how he captured his personality for Joey with no need for direction, how the rifle scene was actually using a real rifle and Morris was terrified of filming that scene, how the drowning scene was real (and an explanation of why it was cut out of the TV version) and how Lennie’s line “You’re laying on my pants” was censored by the state of Ohio and much more.
The documentary “Morris Engel: The Independent” is also impressive as we see Engel reuniting with his young star Richie Andrusco many decades later, we see Engel’s career featured to celebrate his career, but also to celebrate his life years after his death. The same can be said for “Ruth Orkin: Frames of Life” which showcases the career of Ruth Orkin in a smaller 18 minute featurette.
As mentioned earlier, the Blu-ray does feature much better contrast and detail over its DVD counterpart.
Overall, “Little Fugitive” is one of those magical classics that you simply love because it captured American innocence. It captured the real actions of people at Coney Island and it also caught a glimpse of that Coney Island magic that no longer exists. But it’s also a wonderful American independent film that was inspiring to filmmakers because it showed how one can create a film, with not much money but yet have an impact on viewers all over the world.
Delightful, entertaining and wonderful, Morris Engel’s “Little Fugitive” is highly recommended!
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