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With: Richie Andrusco, Richard Brewster, Winifred Cushing, Jay Williams, Will Lee, Charlie Moss, Tommy DeCanio
Written by: Ray Ashley, Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin
Directed by: Ray Ashley, Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 80
Date: 09/01/1953

Little Fugitive (1953)

4 Stars (out of 4)

The Coney Island Kid

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Why isn't the name Morris Engel ever mentioned when discussing the origins of American independent film? This amazing little film, co-directed with Ray Ashley and Engel's wife Ruth Orkin, is one of the most painful and vivid recollections of childhood I've ever seen, easily on par with Zero for Conduct, The 400 Blows and The Butcher Boy. (Truffaut has cited Engel as an influence.)

Seven year-old Joey (Richie Andrusco) wants to play with his older brother Lennie (Richard Brewster) and his friends, but they keep brushing him off, disregarding him as a pest. The older boys get the idea to fake Lennie's death and blame Joey. Joey believes them and takes off for Coney Island, hoping to hide out until the "heat" dies down. To make matters worse, Lennie is supposed to be looking after Joey while their mother is out of town, and Joey has taken the emergency money she left for them.

Engel shows Joey taking in the sights and sounds of Coney, with plenty of time for simple, unrelated moments rather than a coherent plot. Joey practices his baseball pitch, eats lots of junk food, rides the ponies (he's a cowboy nut) and learns to collect bottles for the deposit money. Engel and his team capture a remarkably intense park atmosphere, with crowds, grit, litter, heat and noise as well as the wonders that are there for young eyes to discover.

The entire music score -- and there are long stretches with no dialogue -- is recorded on a harmonica, to reflect Lennie's prize possession, of which Joey is jealous. The film was nominated for an Oscar for screenwriting and was inducted into the Library of Congress' National Film Registry in 1997.

Little Fugitive tells a fairly small story, but Engel takes his time with it, and it builds slowly and steadily toward a memorable conclusion. It deserves to be better known.

Kino released this film on DVD back in 2003. In 2008 they added it into The Films of Morris Engel 2-DVD box set, also including Lovers and Lollipops (1956) and Weddings and Babies (1958). Extras include a commentary track by Engel (recorded not long before his death in 2005), a brand-new short documentary, an earlier documentary, a trailer and an image gallery. In 2013, Kino released a beautiful Blu-ray edition, which makes the film seem even warmer. Extras are the same as on the DVD.

In 2021, Kino offered an updated version of its 2008 box set with a deluxe 3-Blu-ray set. It includes the 2013 Blu-ray of Little Fugitive, plus two more Blu-rays including the aforementioned short films, plus several other short films and TV ads made by Engel and his team. There's also a live television interview, and some home movie footage.

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