It’s a small film, but an important one. It is the collective work of Morris Engel, Ray Ashley, and Ruth Orkin for the 1953 American independent movie, The Little Fugitive (aka The Coney Island Kid). Not only was it a huge influence on American independent cinema and the French New Wave, but it’s also just a really good movie on its own. There are also elements of Italian Neo-realism. One will be reminded of the work of Vittorio de Sica for its perceptive non-romantic insights into little-seen worlds of lower class characters and for the directors’ use of non-professional actors. One might also see how both the style and mood would appear later in the works of Truffaut and Godard. Me? I see Hal Roach with a cheaper production team.
The story follows the adventures of little seven-year-old New Yorker, Joey Norton (Richie Andrusco). When his mother (Winifred Cushing) must leave town to visit their sick grandmother she puts big brother, Lennie (Richard Brewster), in charge until she returns. Lennie is bummed because he wanted to go to Coney Island and hang out with the guys and now he has to watch Joey. To get rid of Joey for awhile, Lennie and his friends devise a plan. Joey loves cowboys and guns so they get a rifle and some ketchup and trick little Joey into believing he has accidentally killed his big brother. Then they terrify him by saying the cops will be looking for him so he better run. And thus our movie begins.
It’s a simple enough setup, is it not? Small boy thinks he’s murdered his brother and so hides out at Coney Island. What makes this movie different from other films that follow the trails of killers is that Joey is a kid and handles things differently. Joey’s brother is alive (and eventually becomes remorseful and very worried about his missing brother) and so his fear of the law is irrational and since he is so young he naturally processes his own concerns for surviving and the moral dilemma of killing and lying differently than an adult might. He still needs his mommy to take care of him. He is not independent. He is not Harrison Ford.
After only a few hours following the apparent gunning down of Lennie, Joey is happily distracted in the carnival atmosphere of Coney Island. He’s getting his picture taken at a booth where you can stick your head out of a hole to make it look like you have a strong man’s body. Joey plays some of the midway games and collects glass bottles on the beach for small change to ride the horses. It’s lackadaisical and loose and there’s not much to keep Joey glued to his dilemma. He sleeps under the pier and tries his best to collect enough bottles to ride the horse again in the morning. There’s only about as much structure to Joey’s adventures as there would be if we were to follow a real seven year old boy around. The free-flowing narrative and organic hand-held camera shots with their cheap 1950s grain adds much texture and believability to Fugitive. Much like de Sica and Satyajit Ray, Morris and company capture a living documentary style that has a strange unkempt elegance to it. Much of the footage (particularly at the beach) was taken covertly without the “extras” even knowing they were being filmed. Pure guerrilla filmmaking.
Lennie realizes too late that perhaps the joke they played on him was a bit much, but his real motive for finding Joey seems to be the fear of what might happen if mommy found out. He feverishly writes messages on walls, poles, and garbage cans in the hopes that Joey might see them and come home. Lennie is most definitely sorry for what he did even if most of his lesson-learning is dictated by the imminent consequences. But isn’t that how all developing minds learn?
The Little Fugitive (small admission, I personally prefer Coney Island Kid for the title) reminds me of a grittier take on Hal Roach’s Our Gang series. The story even feels as though it could have been told with folks like Stymie, Spanky, Wheezer, and Petey as the vehicles. Perhaps this is because Roach and the independent filmmakers behind this film understood something about kids that many filmmakers miss. Children are not mere puppets to present adult foibles and paint the tragedy of the spoiling of innocence in the real world. What makes The Little Fugitive such a successful and enjoyable movie is its uncanny ability to present a child’s eye view of the world. It does not condescend. The perspective of an adult is not something to be merely superimposed onto the face a youth. Kids are kids. They are different creatures who understand the world and how it functions in a different light, sometimes a forgotten light. They make mistakes grownups would easily avoid and they solve problems in ways grownups would never think of.
It also hearkens back to a much simpler time. 1950s New York City is a time of the past and this film is a great peek into what a child might have seen. It’s classic slice-of-Americana filmmaking and it’s a breathing postcard of a lost era. Joey walks around with a great big cowboy pistol around his waist the whole time. This was before those orange, plastic safety knobs at the tip. People seem friendlier and more trusting. Wishful thinking? Maybe, but I’d like to live in that wish for awhile. It all feels like how carefree and magical my own childhood was…before they scared us all to death with “Stranger Danger.”
The movie is a little rough around the edges, but this in no way detracts from the experience. I submit that much of its crudeness adds much to the presentation. What I like most about The Little Fugitive is how well it captures a child’s world. There is imagination and wonder for the mundane and then neglect for certain consequences, but they ultimately pave the way for much growing. The film does not paint Joey’s adventure as anything profound or moral, but rather as just another chapter in a growing boy’s life. I can almost see an 80 year old Joey recounting the time his brother tricked him into thinking he had killed him and so he spent a few days exploring Coney Island. It’s not played up for dramatic effect, but rather it presents the story in a more subtle and realistic light.
If you like children “lookin’ fo-uh dair bruddahs” and if you like Our Gang or French New Wave or Neo-Realism or independent films than this is a must see.