A seven-year-old Brooklyn boy, playing with his older brother and the brother’s friends, is tricked into thinking he has shot and killed his brother. Panic-stricken, the younger boy flees to Coney Island, where he has a high old time eating hot dogs and riding the rides (getting the cash by returning bottles). Meanwhile, the older boy is frantically searching for him, not in the least because he’s going to be in a lot of hot water with his mother for not doing a better job of babysitting.
This, of course, is the plot of Little Fugitive, a 1953 American independent film that anticipated the French New Wave. It still feels fresh today, as well as capturing some wonderful views of contemporary New York City in the process, and indicating what childhood was like before the advent of helicopter parents. Written and directed by Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin, and Raymond Abrashkin (credited as Ray Ashley), Little Fugitive, makes good use of nonprofessional actors, including Richie Andrusco as the younger boy, Richard Brewster as his older brother, Winifred Cushing as their mother, and Jay Williams as a wise and sympathetic Coney Island worker.
Little Fugitive captures a view of childhood reminiscent of the photos of Helen Levitt—never sentimental, always respectful of the special way children come to inhabit their surroundings. It was shot with a hand-held 35 mm camera, with sound dubbed in later, which takes a bit of getting used to, but the unique vision of city life presented in this film makes it more than worth your while. Among other honors, it won the Silver Lion at the 1953 Venice Film Festival and the screenplay was nominated for an Oscar in 1954.
Ruth Orkin was known primarily as a still photographer (including the famous “American Girl in Italy”), but she also co-directed, with Engel, the 1956 feature film Lovers and Lollipops. In addition, he directed the 1958 feature Weddings and Babies and the 1968 feature I Need a Ride to California. All four films are included, along with a lot of other materials, in Little Fugitive: The Collected Films of Morris Engel & Ruth Orkin, now available in a box set from Kino Lorber. Engel and Morris were married and had two children, both of which went into the business: Andy Engel became an actor, Mary Engel a director and producer.
All the films in this collection were shot in New York City, but Lovers and Lollipops comes the closest to giving you the 50-cent tour. Ann (Lori March, who went on to become known as the “First Lady of Daytime Television” for her many roles on soap operas) is a widow who works as a model and lives in an apartment with her seven-year-old daughter Peggy (Cathy Dunn). Larry (Gerald S. O’Loughlin, who made a career playing tough guys on the big and little screen) is courting Ann, which offers the film a chance to visit a variety of locations, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Central Park Zoo, the Statue of Liberty, Chinatown, and Macy’s. Lovers and Lollipops was, like Little Fugitive, shot with a handheld 35mm camera, with sound dubbed in later; unlike the earlier film, this one has a lot of music on the soundtrack, which is often used to add arch humor to the proceedings.
Weddings and Babies (1958) stars Viveca Lindfors and John Myhers as a young couple living in Little Italy. Al is a commercial photographer with a specialty (as his shop window declares) in wedding and baby pictures, but has cold feet when it comes to committing to marriage himself. This does not please Bea, who has turned 30 and has no interest in remaining in the limbo of girlfriendhood indefinitely. Then Al’s mother (Chiarina Barile) shows up on their doorstep, which happens to double as Al’s studio, and Al further tests Bea’s patience by spending his savings on an expensive camera. Can this relationship be saved? You’ll have to watch the film to find out, and you’ll get a great view of 1950s New York City life among the non-elite at the same time. Like Little Fugitive, Weddings and Babies was shot on black and white film with a handheld camera, and received international recognition, winning two awards at the 1958 Venice Film Festival, the Italian Cinema Clubs Award and the Parallel Sections Award (where it tied with Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries).
I Need a Ride to California (1968), which was not released during Engel’s lifetime, offers a view of life among some hippies living in the East Village with particular focus on a young woman, Lilly (Lilly Shell). It’s very different in feel from the other two films, beginning with the vibrancy of the 35mm color cinematography, the luscious folk-inflected soundtrack, and the general aimlessness of the story. The central characters have all chosen to “drop out” of the world of careers and conventional families, in favor of living in the moment, and Engel aims to create an immersive film that puts you inside their lives. In this he succeeds admirably although, if you’re a so-called “responsible adult,” you may find yourself becoming exasperated with these attractive young people who seem to be doing nothing with their lives. The actors are mostly nonprofessionals, with the exception of Rod Perry, who played the lead in The Black Gestapo (1975) and appeared in various other films and TV shows, including S.W.A.T. and Barney Miller. | Sarah Boslaugh
Little Fugitive: The Collected Films of Morris Engel & Ruth Orkin is distributed on Blu-ray, DVD, and streaming by Kino Lorber. Extras on the three-disc DVD box set include a commentary track by Engel for Little Fugitive, the short documentary films “Morris Engel: The Independent” (28 min.) and “Ruth Orkin: Frames of Life” (18 min.), a television interview with Ruth Orkin (4 min.), home movies from the Engel-Orkin household (11 min.), four short films (“The Dog Lover,” “The Farm They Won,” “One Chase Manhattan Plaza,” and “Peace Is”), and television commercials for Oreo cookies, Ivory soap, and Fab detergent.