The not-to-be-underestimated singularity of Little Fugitive is such that its legacy nearly contradicts its nature. The film’s unprecedentedly independent, by-hook-or-crook production methods were later cited as an influence on the French New Wave, if only in the Thor Heyerdahlian sense of proving what was possible with the tools and ambition at hand. Superficially, meanwhile, the movie bears all the hallmarks of a tardy stateside response to Italian neorealism, including the use of class-emblematic non-actors and a dilapidated urban milieu that plays itself (in this case Brooklyn circa 1950). Nevertheless, the film’s beguiling visual poetry and smatterings of sociological subtext function less than coherently as transitional markers between cinematic epochs, or even as the nascent burblings of any imminent DIY revolution; instead, they’re redolent of a modernist apotheosis. Two of the film’s directors, Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin, were alums of New York’s feted Photo League (the third, Raymond Abrashkin, was a children’s author) and their debut’s populist polish suggests both the shimmering idealizations of Carl Van Vechten and the undramatic candidness of Walker Evans—some of whose hidden camera techniques were employed to maintain realism in crowd scenes. The resulting stylistic synthesis is an abstract portrait of a city overwhelmed by its own staggering design.
The barely there narrative concerns two native brothers (the dialogue spreads the “gee whiz” dialect a bit thickly in this regard) who occupy themselves while their single mother attends to a sick, out-of-town relative. Hoping for quality time with his pals, Lennie, the older of the two siblings, pranks his younger brother and ward-for-the-weekend Joey by playing dead after the latter hesitantly fires a rifle procured by one of Lennie’s friends. Unable to grasp or confront the implications of his presumed fratricide, Joey flees, and with a pocket of fortuitous change spends the evening and next day hiding out at Coney Island. He rides the roller coasters, stuffs himself with cotton candy, collects soda bottles he can exchange for cash, and (most frequently) peers up at the brash sun in a not-quite-dismayed, not-quite-empowered daze.
Joey’s 24-hour odyssey, from its arbitrary impetus onward, is awash with myth. Aside from being a plausible source of succor for a down-trodden child, Coney Island more than likely marks the desperate edge of the character’s diminutive universe, and as a result feels almost chthonic; the wooden horses of the merry-go-round on which Joey repeatedly spins begin to look, in close-up, like lost souls in suspended animation. At the point we expect this mythos of youth to melt away into the disillusionment of nascent maturation, however, the film withdraws its focus from Joey’s experience and becomes unconcerned with the boy’s inner life. (Joey’s countenance becomes more inscrutable as time passes, and the script denies easy exposition even to his obsession with TV cowboys, which informs a narrative turn in the third act.) And what could have been a knotty, developmental psychology-inspired character study caves in and instead explores milieu with detached, photographic aplomb—much in the way, perhaps, that the anonymity provided by urban living can engender a “caving in” of personhood if one allows it to, as was explored in the similarly Brooklyn-set Lonesome.
I say “perhaps” because most of the film’s imagery resists thematic interpretation while remaining, somehow, ineffably communicative rather than simply winsome; the cinematography is clearly thinking, but what of? Alternating stripes of light and shadow under a boardwalk could, for example, be an expression of Joey’s half-hearted guilt, but they more indelibly exude a curious shapeliness, becoming a kind of affect-less “found art” that argues for the city’s photogenic everydayness. The often low-angled cameras also convert everything from concrete curbs to hot dog stands into goofily gargantuan structures, but their exaggerated tallness never appears intended to intimidate or produce easy wonderment. New York’s apathetic yet grand presence becomes the film’s most enigmatic character.
In fact, the cinematography almost seems to offer a view of the city, simultaneously atomized and immense, as the city would perceive itself; the vertiginous shuttling between sidewalk-level shots and aerial views suggest an attempt to achieve a metropolitan god’s-eye omniscience. This perspectival peculiarity bewitches the landscape, so that even the most ordinary of material becomes magical—though this strange beauty always seems to have been stumbled upon rather than planted. (Even the cracks in a brick wall look like blessings that purposefully pattern the midday heat.) One might argue that these pretty, postured street images would have been more appropriately rendered as a series of stills, yet it’s their durational quality that ultimately allows them to capture all of New York’s pulsating contradictions. The city is at once benevolent and indifferent, a numinous space and a heap of substances, both perplexingly inhospitable and organically lived-in.