Little Fugitive’s inciting incident is a performance piece, that of the murder of adolescent Lennie Norton (Richard Brewster) by his kid brother, seven-year-old Joey (Richie Andrusco), on a hot summer day. It’s an illusion that Joey buys into immediately, thanks to some ketchup and an air gun (practical effects, in other words), and sends him on the lam to the wonderland of Coney Island. For Joey, an obsessive of cowboy culture and television westerns, the righteous actions of the fictional outlaws he identifies with, even worships, have given way to the hard consequences of violent behavior and true crime. This revelation, however, is strictly Joey’s, and filmmakers Ruth Orkin, Morris Engel, and Ray Ashley smartly avoid marring their film in the politics or sentimentality of such an epiphany.
Indeed, Little Fugitive remains one of the most elementally joyous and vital films about youth ever made distinctly because the film fully adopts Joey’s point of view, averting any sense of preachy, didactic moralizing by regulating all adults to bit parts. Joey and Lennie’s mother (Winifred Cushing), the more memorable of the narrative’s two significant adult characters, largely bookends the narrative, on a trip to check in on Grandma, while Andrusco appears in nearly every shot as Joey roams around the rides, games, food vendors, and day-at-the-beach families that populate Coney Island. And Engel’s lovely black-and-white lensing, influenced by his work as a city photographer along with wife Orkin, captures the busy tempo of city life, even in Coney Island’s circus of recreation, with the kinetic, improvisational flair of cinéma vérité, perfectly mirroring Joey’s untamed, unquenchable curiosity as its let loose in his own Pleasure Island.
Of course, this Pleasure Island requires money, and when Joey blows his meager savings on hot dogs, watermelons, batting cages, and ball-toss games, he picks up the least sought-after forms of labor: collecting empty soda bottles and turning them in to the recycling center under the boardwalk. This process, taught to Joey by a fellow lost boy, and Engel’s clear familiarity with the area (he spent part of his formative years around Coney Island) ground the story’s fable-like conceit in a potent, limitless reality. The film’s allure comes from the interplay of the familiarity of this recognizable landmark and the sense of perpetual discovery and imagination found in Andrusco’s life-hungry disposition. As such, the filmmakers summon the excitement of filmmaking on its most basic terms, as if they were all looking through their very first camera for the first time again.
Often credited as the seed for the American independent film movement, and the French New Wave (at least in François Truffaut’s opinion), Little Fugitive is the result of a fully cooperative and democratic production, and one can feel it in the film’s exquisitely shambling design. Shot on location using a hidden camera with no sound and dubbed afterward, and stocked with non-professional performers, the film boasts an aesthetic that feels constantly self-aware in its poverty of means, but its ambitions are quietly radical. While lovingly deconstructing Hollywood’s (and America’s) greatest myth, that of the cowboy, the filmmakers also deconstruct, if not demolish, the concept of filmmaking as an entertainment and art form dependent and powered by money. Little Fugitive feels like a child’s wild abstraction of a western, but it’s executed with a respect for and knowledge of childhood that denotes true wisdom.
Since this isn’t a frame-to-frame restoration, there is some slight damage (specks, brief scratches), but it almost adds to the film’s already immense nostalgia. Otherwise, the transfer boasts great clarity and contrast balance, and there’s no trace of processing or edge enhancement. It looks great, and it sounds just as good, even though the presentation is obviously limited by the LPCM Mono. All the sound was dubbed over, including the fantastic harmonica score by Eddy Manson, and it sounds impressively clear, even though the New Yawk accents get a little thick. Short of a Criterion treatment, this is about as good as could be expected.
Morris Engel provides a wonderful audio commentary, wading deep into his memories of the production and of his personal connection to Coney Island. He’s very warm and informative about the entire process of filming on location in secret, as well as on the casting and dubbing of the film. Two featurettes, on Engel and Orkin respectively, help to give background to the photographic tendencies that informed how Little Fugitive was shot. A very well-rounded package, which also includes a trailer and a gallery of stills.
The film is remarkable for innumerable reasons, not least of which for making a New York City summer seem not like hell on Earth.