Even in black and white, the semi-legendary 1953 American indie film The Little Fugitive is a reminder of how garish and grotesque the pleasures of early childhood can be. Not just clowns, who are dumped on by everybody these days, but circuses and carnivals and amusement parks in general; and carousels; and sticky, fluorescent-colored cotton candy and taffy and gum; and rinky-tink, rooty-toot music; and bottles of root beer and oddly tinted fruit drinks; and terrifying fairy tales; and the mangy little animals in petting zoos and pony rides; and vertigo-inducing rides; and the looming, baffling, frightening mien of the grown-ups who both provide and withhold these simple joys.
The Little Fugitive, written and directed by Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin, and Ray Ashley, is the charming story of a seven-year-old boy who falls victim to a childish hoax – he is made to believe that he accidentally killed his older brother – and runs away from the scene of the non-existent crime to Coney Island. He spends the day doing exactly what any seven-year-old boy would do when let loose in an amusement park/carnival with a pocket full of change and nothing whatsoever on his mind (except, to a tiny degree, perhaps, his brother’s apparent demise), before, a long time later, being rescued and brought back home.
This unpretentious little journey, beautifully filmed with a hand-held camera, and featuring minimal dialogue, influenced both Francois Truffaut, who once said, “Our New Wave would never have come into being if it hadn’t been for the young Morris Engel”, and Engel’s friend Stanley Kubrick, who used equipment from The Little Fugitive for his first and largely forgotten feature film, Fear and Desire.
Those expecting to be blown away by The Little Fugitive might be disappointed by its modesty, but it isn’t hard to see what impressed Engel’s fellow filmmakers, and led, as well, to the movie winning, among other awards, a Silver Lion from the Venice International Film Festival. It is almost flawlessly naturalistic; Richie Andrusco, the lucky little boy who plays the lead, would appear to have been let loose by the film makers to do, and buy, whatever he wished on Coney Island, and the filmmakers merely captured his actual behavior.
Seeing the toothy, freckled Andrusco consume a large slice of watermelon, or struggle in a batting cage with a bat that is far too heavy for him, or collect empty bottles of soda pop for spare change, is an oddly beautiful experience: It is like watching one’s own dim memories of childhood come back to life in a way that virtually no contemporary movie, with its over-determined and focus-grouped stories and expensive effects – talk about garish and grotesque! – could possibly hope to do.
The movie had something of a personal, if second-hand, resonance for me as well. My younger brother, when he was about eight or nine, was taken to a Chicago area amusement park called Kiddieland after many months of begging our apathetic parents. The way my brother tells the story my father, disgusted at the imposition, pulled into the parking lot, handed my brother some cash, flung open the car door, and forced him go off on his own for the day.
My father waited out this ordeal by smoking cigarettes and listening to music on the car radio while my brother did, well, what? He claims not to remember much about that day except that he wandered around quite a bit and, not surprisingly, felt lonely and frightened and at loose ends.
But the understated honesty of The Little Fugitive’s story might remind him, if he ever were to watch it, that that long-ago day was probably not much different than the one depicted in the movie, and thus not so bad. It’s a small point, perhaps, but also an important achievement: To remind us, in general, of the universality of human experience, and, more specifically, the survivability of most childhood traumas.
The Little Fugitive comes neatly packaged by Kino International with two of Engel’s other movies, Lovers and Lollipops (directed with his wife, Ruth Orkin) and Weddings and Babies. Extras on The Little Fugitive disc include full-length audio commentary by Morris Engel, and documentaries about both Engel and Orkin.
The latter is valuable, if for nothing else, in serving as a reminder of what a wonderful photographer Orkin (whose photography book, The World Through My Window, is a small classic) was, and how much of an influence she, as well as Engel, must have had on not only the early efforts of Truffaut and Kubrick, but on a great many honest and uncontrived indie movies that came after.