“Little Fugitive”: Coney Island Baby

Repertory Little Fugitive

Published on February 1st, 2013 | by Daniel Guzmán



“Little Fugitive” runs from February 1-7 at Film Forum.

Running time: 85 minutes, 1953
Written and directed by Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin

 Truly, New York is the heart of filmmaking.

Returning to the big screen for a one week engagement, the Brooklyn-made “Little Fugitive” is a small movie with great importance, serving as both history lesson for film fans and master class for filmmakers.

The film tells the story of Joey, a little boy who lives with his older brother Lennie in Brooklyn. When Lennie plays a practical joke that makes Joey believe he accidentally shot and killed him, Joey flees to Coney Island to hide out. As Lennie frantically searches for his brother before their mother comes home, Joey has the time of his life enjoying the many different attractions.

Filming on location during Coney Island’s 1950s heyday, directors Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin used a concealed makeshift 35mm camera to shoot without the knowledge of beach-goers. François Truffaut cited the neo-realist approach in this film as the inspiration for the French New Wave style of cinema, while Jean-Luc Godard even asked the directors if he could borrow their filmmaking equipment for his own experiments.

Much credit should go to the seven-year-old Richie Andrusco for carrying the film on his little shoulders. And while having fun at an amusement park isn’t necessarily the most demanding role for a child to play, it’s important that the audience has fun watching it, too. In this, young Andrusco succeeds, sharing his enthusiasm with the camera as he explores Coney Island’s carousel rides and arcades. Andrusco does a fine job of handling the more emotional moments, too, such as the bursts of anger at the bullying kids, and the grief at thinking he killed his brother that leads to his Brooklyn odyssey.

The spontaneous camerawork is the real standout element in this film, serving as both compelling cinematography and an invaluable look at a part of New York that no longer exists. From depicting larger-than-life carnival barkers to showing little children staring up at all the strange people, the film takes its time to document the feel of this lost moment in Coney Island history.

While the plot itself is simple, the wide-eyed amazement that the directors bring to the story is not without charm. Joey is obsessed with cowboys, an element that the directors present throughout the film, whether in the practical joke involving a toy rifle, or in the harmonica rendition of “Home on the Range” that plays on the soundtrack. The concept of New York as the Wild West is later explored in darker tones by New Wave fans like Martin Scorsese (particularly in “Taxi Driver”); however, in this film, the “urban cowboy” theme is one of pure adventure. Through a child’s eyes, Brooklyn (and America) is seen as a frontier of excitement and endless possibilities, and we are invited to see this, too.

While “Little Fugitive” is not as nuanced and powerful as the films that it would inspire, it is easy to see how this big-hearted film could have served as the creative engine driving such works as “The 400 Blows” and “Breathless”. Like Joey, “Little Fugitive” is a small wonder with a big heart.

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About the Author

is a writer of fiction, articles, and critical essays. He lives in New York. www.danielguzman.org

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