On Sunday 31st August I gave a brief introduction to Morris Engel’s 1953 film LITTLE FUGITIVE at Saffron Screen in Saffron Walden, that was screening as part of Mark Cousins curated season “Cinema of Childhood”.
Here below are the notes from my introduction along with an extract from an email I received the day before the screening from the US film historian, Foster Hirsch.
Foster is the author of 16 books on Cinema as well as being an authority on method acting, he currently holds the post of film professor at Brooklyn College, New York. I’ve had the great privilege to know Foster for just over two years now and have reprinted with his permission, an extract from his email on the film:
- Morris Engel was born in Brooklyn in 1918 and raised in Williamsburg and Coney Island.
- At 18 he joined the Photo League (a co-operative of photographers in New York who banded together around a range of common social and creative causes) and had his first photography exhibition a year later in 1939. He was predominantly known for “street photography”
- Worked as cinematographer on Paul Strand’s NATIVE LAND (1939) where he grew an aversion to cameras fixed on tripods. Strand was also member of the Photo League
- Joined the US Navy in 1941 as a combat photographer and landed on the beaches of Normandy on 6th June 1944 – D Day
- Whilst in the Navy he met Charles Woodruff, an engineer, who adapted the Cunningham Combat Cameras used in the armed services so that they could be handheld. By holding a camera against his chest and using a strap around his neck as a brace, Engel could achieve the smooth, steady look of a Hollywood feature film without the need for a tripod (considered to be almost an early version of steadicam)
- After the War he returned to New York as a photographer and taught workshop classes and met Ruth Orkin, another freelance photographer
- In 1952, together with his then girlfriend (eventually wife – married later in 1952) Ruth Orkin and friend Raymond Abrashkin (credited as Ray Ashley) they made LITTLE FUGITIVE – shooting took place in and around Coney Island from July to September – total budget of $30,000 – shot on 35mm which at that time was unusual for amateur filmmakers to use instead of 16mm
- The young lead, Richie Andrusco who never appeared in another film, was discovered by chance by Engel riding the carousel at Coney Island. He was with his older brother Tommy at the time and Tommy said that Engel would have to get his mother’s permission if they wanted to use Richie in the film. She said “Absolutely not” because she was under the initial impression that she would have to pay Engel to use Richie in the film! When Engel told her that in fact it would be the other way round and that she would be paid to allow Richie to be in the film, she was fine with it!
- All the early outdoor scenes in the apartment and outside in the street were shot in just two days around Coney Island, whilst the remainder of the film at the fairground at Coney island took close to 3 months of shooting.
- Small number of lines of dialogue in the film, which for a 80min move is practically unheard of. The majority of the dialogue was post-synched back in the studio after filming was complete, a technique which gives the film perhaps even more of a documentary feel and was commonly used by the neo-realist filmmakers of the time like Rossellini. The film itself has been described as an American interpretation of Italian neo-realism, a movement which often focused on child protagonists alone in a world unwilling to care for them.
- Engel was often asked “who really directed this film?” and he would always respond that it was “Joey”. The young actor would often refuse to carry on filming just so he could get his way and do something he wanted to do, so filming would stop and they’d do what he wanted and then just carry on.
- A risk was taken with using just one instrument for the score for the film, a harmonica. This was played by Eddie Manson who also did all the sound effects for the film. His harmonica work would later be used as part of the music for COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER, THE LONGEST DAY and BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY.
- Engel was also cinematographer for the film and using his special concealed strap-on camera it made it easy for him to move around and film without the need for a large crew. The camera was also partly concealed so the huge crowd scenes on Coney Island beach were much easier to film using this method. Engel’s camera was much admired and his friend Stanley Kubrick, who at that time had just made his first feature film, FEAR AND DESIRE, was desperate to get his hands on Engel’s camera to borrow it for his next film. Jean-Luc Godard and the documentary filmmakers, the Maysles brothers were also fond admirers of Engel’s camera and asked to use it.
- One scene to look out for is when Joey is at Coney Island and goes into the baseball cage to have a turn at hitting the automatically thrown baseballs. Engel was inside the cage with Joey, and you can see at one point when one of the balls Joey strikes hits Engel and his camera! Tommy, Joey’s real life brother, is the boy he watches in the baseball cage before he goes in.
- Ruth Orkin also makes a small appearance in the film as the mother on the beach with her baby who Joey has bumped into and spilled their water.
- The original editor of the film dropped out as he felt he could do nothing with the film so Ruth Orkin stepped in and completed the film.
- Once the film was completed it was shown to every major studio at the time and every single one of them rejected it, with a couple of the majors even telling Engel that it just doesn’t work and he should cut it down to make a short film. He was told time and time again by various studios that there was just no story there, and yet it went on to be nominated for an Academy Award for best story!
- The film was eventually picked up by Joseph Burstyn who was a US film distributor of mainly foreign language films and LITTLE FUGITIVE became the first American independent film. Most people tend to think of this being Cassavetes SHADOWS (1959) but this of course was several years later.
- When the film was released it played at 5000 cinemas across America to very large audiences. Sadly Burstyn died tragically during a flight to France before the film was released but he was able to take the film to Venice where it won the Silver Lion Award in 1953.
- Cassavetes and Scorsese went on record as admitting to having been influenced by Engel’s film along of course with Truffaut who’s famous quote about the film reads “Our New Wave would never have come into being if it hadn’t been for the young American filmmaker Morris Engel who showed us the way to independent production, with his fine movie Little Fugitive.”
- Perhaps the film was even better summed up by the Cahiers du Cinema critic, Alain Bergala, when he described it as “a missing link in the history of modern cinema, a small, unexpected islet, midway between the first wave of Italian neo-realism and the future French New Wave; between European modernity and the upcoming independent American cinema.”
Extract from email received by Foster Hirsch on 30th August 2014:
I am old enough to have seen the film when it came out in 1953 — in fact, instead of a birthday party my parents and I, on my birthday, took about ten kids to see the film, playing at a theatre on Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles that specialized in foreign and art films. (I think it is important to note that LITTLE FUGITIVE played in art houses in America — in theatres that usually showed foreign films, which for the first time, really, were beginning to find a loyal audience in the big cities.)
I thought then, sixty years ago, and I think now, that LITTLE FUGITIVE is extraordinary. As a ten year old and a budding cinephile I knew how good the film was: the purity of its documentary shooting, the naturalism of the acting (it didn’t seem like acting at all), the location shooting, and more: the world as seen from the point of a view of a child, a kid. Morris Engel, whom I knew, experimented with a new kind of camera, strapped to his waist so that he could he shoot the world from the physical vantage pint of little Richie Andrusco. It felt then like something entirely new in cinema — and seems so to me now after all these years. The behavior of the little boy, on his own for the first time and improvising survival, seems so pure and true — so real, and so touching. Richie, not an actor, but a ‘real’ kid Morris found in Coney Island, is simply the real thing — unvarnished. Morris said to me often that Richie wasn’t an actor, had none of the instincts of the actor and as a result it was difficult directing him. No: it was impossible to direct him. He had to invent activities that Richie could become genuinely interested in.
The plain harmonica score is also revelatory — just the right touch, and like most things connected to this lucky project, more or less a last minute decision, as Morris recounted it. Also, the dubbing: it might seem a drawback, but I think somehow the dubbed sound adds a layer of truth to the image. Sounds paradoxical, and I can’t quite express it, but the ‘fake’ sound, added after shooting, enhances the documentary texture of the shooting.
The story — small but original and true — received an Oscar nomination that Morris was very proud of. Morris was a true independent and, as his daughter Mary and I have both laughed about over the years, a very stubborn man. He knew what he wanted, and he went after it.
Morris was very proud of Truffaut’s praise, that FUGITIVE led to the French New Wave.
A final anecdote: a few summers ago, I met with a director and a potential producer who were interested in a play written by a friend of mine. In the middle of the lunch, I realized who the producer was, and to his delight, here is what I said: “I know who you are — you were an actor in the greatest film ever made.” He was the kid who devised the plan of ‘shooting’ Joey — and he really looked exactly as he did in the movie, only 60 years later!