I discovered "The Little Fugitive" quite by accident in the mid-1970s while surfing Los Angeles television channels (yup, before cable) on a rainy afternoon when I should have been at work. I have no idea why I wasn't working, but I'm glad I played hooky. This film is the kind of rare life-affirming experience that changes one's perspective, which is what cinema in its purest form and at its foundation is intended to do.
"The Little Fugitive" is a 1953 American film written and directed by Raymond Abrashkin (as "Ray Ashley"), Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin, that tells the story of a child, seven-year-old Joey Norton (Richie Andrusco), alone in Coney Island.
Joey resides with his older brother Lennie (Richard Brewster) in a lower- to middle-class Brooklyn neighborhood. Too young and small to be totally accepted by Lennie and his friends, Joey knows he's loved at root but suffers from little-brother syndrome. He longs to play with the older kids, but that usually comes at the price of teasing and ultimately being left behind anyway.
One day when their mother is away visiting her sick mother, Lennie and his pals play a joke on Joey. Using catsup and a toy gun, they convince Joey that he has shot and killed his big brother. Mean, sure. But that's kids _ and what a wonderful story premise.
The kids tell Joe he'll go to prison for the rest of his life (which is quite a stretch indeed when you're seven years old), so he does what many children in Brooklyn at that time would do: he runs away to Coney Island. If you're going to be guilty, nothing like arcades, pony rides and the beach to put things back in perspective.
The movie focuses on Joey's day by himself as he goes unnoticed by everyone (still the way of things, sadly) except for the fellow who operates the pony ride, which Joey continues to patronize again and again thanks to his cashing in deposit bottles (if this movie were done today, Joey would grow up to be the founder of Denny's, let's face it).
To say much more would obviously ruin the plot, but suffice it to say this film is Exhibit A that an inexpensive film with a sweet, original story can delve just as deeply into the human psyche, and successfully and movingly, as anything with big stars, a huge budget and scatological references heaped in the dialog.
This film, which influenced the French New Wave, is looked upon as a landmark, not the least of which because of its groundbreaking naturalistic style and use of nonprofessional actors. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing (Motion Picture Story) and won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival, as well as earning an award from the National Board of Review as one of the top 10 films of 1953 and the Silver Ribbon as Best Foreign Film from the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists. In 1997, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
It was first of Morris Engel's three films (it was followed by "Lovers and Lollipops" in 1956 and "Weddings and Babies," which was shot in 1957 and released in 1960). All three were similar stylistically, using hand-held 35mm cameras. In the first two, the cameras didn't record the sound; later dubbing was used. "Weddings and Babies" was the first fiction feature made with a portable camera that allowed synchronized sound.
The impact of this film is still being felt, even if today's filmmakers are unaware of it. A little (80-minute), cheap and totally threadbare independent masterpiece made with heart that doesn't follow trends, but sets one. Let's hope that some newbie filmmaker somewhere discovers this picture and that it serves as inspiration to lay off the zombies already and take the leap into the risky world of originality.