DVD review by Gary Morris
Morris Engelís groundbreaking 1953 indie, Little Fugitive, was previously reviewed in these pages when Kino Video released it on VHS, along with his other two major features, Lovers and Lollipops and Weddings and Babies. (Click here to go to the review.) The company has now released a sharp DVD transfer of Little Fugitive, and the addition of the trailer and a wonderful running commentary by director Engel makes it well worth replacing the VHS with the DVD for those whoíve taken the plunge into the new medium. (And if you havenít, this is a good place to start.)
The filmmakers, Engel and his wife Ruth Orkin, once despaired of even getting a release for their first film, a simple, poignant story of a young boyís trek through Coney Island; now itís become quite familiar to a wide audience through video reissues and frequent appearances on cable TV.
On the DVDís commentary, Engel offers a model for the modern independent director by describing in fascinating detail the filmís unusual production circumstances. For Little Fugitive, Engel and inventor Charlie Woodruff created a new kind of small portable 35mm camera to be strapped to the shoulder that would let him move unobtrusively through scenes but also give the shots a stable look that nearly rivaled the sacred tripod. This camera, which was coveted by Engelís peer at the time, Stanley Kubrick, allowed him to film huge crowd scenes in which no one seemed to notice the camera, and the amazing POV shots in Coney Island inside a tiny batting cage, on a merry go-round-horse, or from the towering Parachute Jump.
For wannabe indie directors, the commentary is a goldmine of information on subjects from post-synching dialogue to how to add sound effects to the vagaries of niche distribution, an often dire situation that apparently has changed little since the early 1950s. Best of all is Engelís energetic DIY attitude. Frequently faced with recalcitrant professionals (like an editor who strung him along before suddenly quitting), Engel and Orkin ended up doing much of the work, including the editing, themselves, learning on the fly.
Engel has nothing but praise for his actors, particularly Ricky Brewster, who gives a strikingly realistic picture of older brother Lenny, and the phenomenal seven-year-old Richie Andrusco, whom he credits as a codirector. The filmís unerring sense of realism can partly be attributed to Andrusco and Brewsterís ingenious bits of business and sometimes their invention of whole scenes after a mere bare bones instruction from Engel. Of course, production didnít always run smoothly. Engel clarifies a strange moment in the scene in the batting cage. Apparently Richie hit Engel, who was shooting inside the cage, with a batted baseball, which is obvious from a slight jump in the image and a brief look of shock on Richieís face. Both took it in stride.
Much of what happened on this magical film was a combination of luck and instinct -- finding the right actors, coming on sudden dramatic events like a drowning at Coney Island -- and the modest Engel says as much. The result is one of the most intriguing films of its time and a rightly honored landmark of the early American indie movement. Francois Truffaut may not have been exaggerating when he said "Our New Wave would never come into being if it hadnít been for the young American Morris Engel Ö with his fine Little Fugitive."
Little Fugitive is now available on DVD from Image Entertainment. Suggested retail price: $29.99. For additional information, we suggest you check out the Image Entertainment Web site.