Blog Directory CineVerse: Life in the big city--from a 7-year-old's vantage point

Life in the big city--from a 7-year-old's vantage point

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Revered by cinema scholars, filmmakers, and fans as one of the true pioneering works of the independent film movement, Little Fugitive, co-created by written Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin, and Ray Ashley, stands as a verit̩ Americana masterwork and classic time capsule of life in early 1950s New York City Рas told from the perspective of a seven-year-old boy and his older brother. Using nonactors and shooting primarily outdoors on location among thousands of New Yorkers, the picture still wows nearly seven decades later, perhaps functioning more effectively as an accurate sociocultural document than a work of commercial entertainment. We applied the CineVerse approach to this film last week and arrived at several realizations (To listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

What took you by surprise about Little Fugitive and left a strong impression?

  • This film serves as an important bridge between the Italian neorealism period of the 1940s and the French new wave of the late 1950s/early 1960s. Françoise Truffaut cited it as a major influence on the latter, particularly thanks to its guerrilla filmmaking approach to on-location shooting to capture the immediacy and honesty of a particular time, place, and community naturalistically.
  • This movie is credited as being the first commercially successful independent American feature film. It grossed four times its production budget of approximately $30,000, earned an Academy award nomination for best writing, and was awarded the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
  • A major reason behind it success was the ability of the filmmakers to shoot on location, practically incognito, thanks to the invention of a one-of-a-kind concealed strap-on camera that didn’t require a tripod or big crew. Co-director Morris Engel was able to strap this small handheld camera on his shoulder and shoot up close and personal to his subjects, allowing him to organically document the rhythms and actions of real New Yorkers.
    • Importantly, the filmmakers opted not to use low-cost and lightweight 16-mm cameras/film stock, which could have provided the same mobile camera freedom and flexibility. Using 35 mm created a higher-quality, less gritty image, making Little Fugitive look like many other professionally-shot Hollywood black and white movies at the time.
  • Additionally, the film employed non-professional actors. The casting of Richie Andrusco, a seven-year-old with no acting experience who was discovered while waiting in line for a carousel ride, is inspired; the entire film and its success rides on our belief in Andrusco’s portrayal of Joey and his effortless ability to act naturally, never breaking the fourth wall or giving an over-rehearsed line reading.
  • Wisely, the filmmakers emphasized character, look, and slice-of-life spontaneity over narrative or plot, apparently allowing many of the scenes to unfold spontaneously or present themselves as happy accidents (like the abrupt rainstorm that occurs, or the way Andrusco hits the baseball in the batting cage).
  • This picture stands as an incredible time capsule of a very particular place and time in American history, when kids idolized cowboys, parents seemed less micromanaging of their offspring, the Brooklyn Dodgers and Coney Island were major Big Apple draws, and you could eat, drink, and make merry on the spare change in your pocket.
    • It’s also fascinating to see the friendly coexisting and intermingling of white and black New Yorkers, even before anti-segregation laws went into effect.

Themes at work

  • The innocence and simplicity of childhood and the secret life of kids. Despite being surrounded by a complex urban mileu and countless adults running things, little Joey navigates his way to fun and fulfillment, making the viewer recall his or her own youth and appreciating the small details that matter to kids.
  • The wonderful randomness of life. A sudden rainstorm, an unexpected urge to use the bathroom, the unforeseen emergence of a means of needed income (collecting pop bottles), and the lucky circumstance in which Joey’s brother is able to find his lost sibling all stand as examples of how life is often unplanned and unscripted, as this movie commonly feels and looks.
  • The resourcefulness and resiliency of children. Joey, only seven years old, proves himself rugged, tough, self-confident, and physically and emotionally capable of caring for himself despite extreme circumstances – including being lost, lacking money and shelter, and feeling guilt and fear from presumably killing his brother.

Similar works

  • Our Gang/Little Rascals shorts
  • The 400 Blows (1959) and other works of the French new wave
  • Italian neorealism films, including Bicycle Thieves and Rome: Open City
  • Faces and other works by American independent movement pioneer John Cassavetes
  • Kes
  • The Spirit of the Beehive
  • I Was Born, But…
  • Home Alone
  • Small Change

Other films by Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin

  • Lovers and Lollipops
  • Weddings and Babies

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