Binge-Worthy #5: The Little Fugitive (Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin, 1953)

Binge-Worthy is a series that explores films made by iconic photographers.

“I’ve always felt that to be a good movie maker, you should do still photography first. And I’ve always felt that to be a good still photographer, you should do movies first. Now, of course, the question is which to do first—I don’t think it matters too much, but in the history of photography, there haven’t been many people that have done both.” –Morris Engel

At the start of the 1950s, husband-and-wife team Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin made an independent feature film called The Little Fugitive for $30,000, shooting clandestinely among the crowds in Coney Island with a small, custom-built portable 35mm film camera.

Their unassuming and charming debut as filmmakers went on to have an unexpected and considerable influence on the film world. It directly inspired the 1956 French classic The Red Balloon as well as François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), and was a major influence on John Cassavetes as well.

The bare-bones plot is easily summarized: A seven-year-old boy named Joey is tricked by his older brother Lennie into running away from home. Joey hops on a subway train and takes it to the last stop on the line, which happens to be Coney Island. When he doesn’t come back, his older brother Lennie desperately tries to track him down before their mother finds out. But for most of its runtime, the film follows Joey around as he enjoys everything that the Nickel Empire has to offer—the games, the rides, the food, and the beach.

Of course, the setup is basically an excuse for the filmmakers to send Joey off on a day’s adventure in Coney Island. Yet, the opening moments also give the viewer a glimpse into the working-class Brooklyn neighborhood that Joey comes from—a world that wasn’t really depicted in American cinema at that time. It’s a world of concrete and bricks, empty side streets and vacant lots littered with broken glass bottles. The two brothers are being raised by a single mother who is struggling to provide for her family as best as she can, and the family’s situation is portrayed honestly and empathetically.

At the same time, the opening also offers an unvarnished and decidedly unsentimental look at the casually cruel ways that kids often interact, as Lennie and his friends pick on Joey. All of this occurs in the first 15 minutes of the film, via an effectively spare, no-frills approach to storytelling.

The film remains grounded in reality even as Joey lives out a dream scenario in Coney Island. Much of the dramatic action is rooted in ordinary moments, such as when the script calls for Joey to lose at a boardwalk game or spill a cup of water. It’s a reminder of—and a reflection on—how in real life, and especially for children, the significance of such seemingly inconsequential events can be greatly magnified.

During the making of the film, Engel often allowed scenes to play out naturally in front of the camera, rather than constructing them in advance via storyboarding, blocking, and other such methods. Engel gave minimal direction to Richie Andrusco, the young boy who played Joey, encouraging him to have fun and be himself during the early Coney Island sequences.

As a photographer, Engel had traversed the beaches and boardwalks himself many times, taking some of his most well-known images there.

Man lying on sand, Coney Island, NYC, 1938 (Morris Engel Archive)

Born in Brooklyn, Engel was a street photographer and photojournalist specializing in photo essays, a number of which focused on the lives of families and children. A member of the Photo League, he had been mentored by Aaron Siskind and Paul Strand, among others. He began to branch out into film after assisting Strand on the documentary Native Land.

Following his experience shooting segments for Strand’s film, Morris decided to ditch the heavy tripod, pare down the equipment to the bare essentials, and find the closest possible equivalent to the unobtrusive approach that he used for street photography. He and a friend designed a small, portable 35mm motion picture camera that enabled him to move around while at the same time remaining inconspicuous. (They chose 35mm over 16mm for the picture quality.)

Handheld and strapped against his chest with a neck support for added stability, the camera gave Engel the ability to be almost as mobile as his lead actor. That element is noticeably at work when Joey wades through the throngs of people on the beach, none of whom were extras and all of whom were probably unaware a movie was being made to begin with. The camera also enabled Engel to be more creative and spontaneous while shooting, whether standing inside a batting cage or capturing a POV shot from the legendary Parachute Jump ride.

Engel and Orkin took their cues not only from street photography but also from the Italian neorealist films of the 1940s. (I personally believe that neorealism is the nearest cinematic equivalent to street photography, but I’ll save that argument for another time.) 

Ruth Orkin learned to edit movies while working on The Little Fugitive, and the way she assembled and sequenced the somewhat unconventional footage is a major reason why the movie succeeds. Orkin was also an established photojournalist and street photographer, best known for her iconic photograph “American Girl In Italy.” She had grown up in Hollywood and was initially interested in pursuing a filmmaking career before gravitating to still photography. After moving to New York, she met Engel through the Photo League and they officially tied the knot while in post-production on the film.

The Oscar-nominated screenplay is largely the contribution of Raymond Abrashkin (working under the name Ray Ashley), also credited as co-producer and co-director. Abrashkin was a writer and editor of children’s fiction whom Engel had befriended while they were both working at Ralph Ingersoll’s progressive newspaper PM.

Behind-the-scenes production still from The Little Fugitive (Morris Engel Archive)

Engel and Orkin’s equally charming if less influential follow-up, Lovers and Lollipops (1956), utilizes the same filmmaking techniques, albeit in a more polished and professional way. It tells a more complex and nuanced story as well, focusing on a young girl’s conflicted feelings about her widowed single mother getting engaged. This time around, the main characters travel to a variety of New York destinations, including MoMA, the Statue of Liberty, and Rye Playland (subbing in nicely for Coney Island). As in The Little Fugitive, the filmmakers employ a street photography approach at these locales, but Lovers corresponds more closely to the photo essays that Engel was producing in the 1940s which quietly observed the lives of families and children, mostly in domestic spaces.

A film critic for the New York Times referred to Lovers and Lollipops as a “picture film,” clarifying that Engel and Orkin “use their actors almost as models for individual photographs, as it were, which are put together with very little of the usual cinema punctuation to tell a ‘picture story,’ much as it would be done with a series of still photographs in a picture magazine.” This insight applies equally to The Little Fugitive, and I couldn’t have phrased it better.

Both of these films have been restored by MoMA and reissued by Kino Lorber as a DVD box set, along with their third feature, Weddings and Babies (1960), which rounds out the trilogy of features they made together over the course of a decade. Kino Lorber has also included their short films and documentaries as well as Engel’s previously unreleased 1968 feature I Need a Ride to California, which is centered around the Greenwich Village counterculture scene. I’ll take a look at that later work for the next installment of this series.

The Little Fugitive (directed by Morris Engel & Ruth Orkin). 35mm film (black and white), 80 min., 1953.

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