Monday, February 4, 2013

Little Fugitive

One of the most interesting things about Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin and Ray Ashley’s production of Little Fugitive, currently being revived at Film Forum, is that it came four years after Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (l948). Engel actually shot the movie in a cinema verite style with a hand held 35mm camera, not a common piece of photographic equipment at that or in any time in the history of American film. If Bicycle Thieves is an iconic piece of Italian neorealism then Little Fugitive might be sui generis example of American hyperrealism. The scene where Lenny (Richard Brewster) tries to locate his kid brother Joey (Richie Andrusco) on a crowded Coney Island beach is uncannily reminiscent of the doomed attempt to retrieve the stolen bicycle, the needle in a haystack, amongst the mountains of bicycles that fill the streets of De Sica’s post-war Rome. What makes Little Fugitive singular in American cinematic history is that it’s about objects rather than a story. Americans genuinely like their bread and butter, which is to say plot, but while Little Fugitive literally had plenty of bread and butter—in the form of cotton candy, watermelon, hot dogs and soda pop—it didn’t provide the kind of bread and butter most filmgoers generally seek. The story is rather simple, young Joey runs away when he is tricked into believing he’s murdered his older brother. Joey has his seven year old version of a Walgurgisnacht and Last Supper in one, riding on the El to Coney Island, passing signs reading “Smile It’s Worth a Million Dollars and Only Costs a Dime” and hearing shills in front of an arcade crying out “everyone knocks them down, you will too,” seeing the ferris wheel and the steeple chase and caressing the head of a merry-go- round horse. The brilliance of the film is to see guilt from the point of view of a seven-year-old and from that character’s height too. Joey survives by collecting the deposits on bottles he finds next to impervious lovers under a boardwalk or nestled into a jetty. “Why did you run away?” Lenny asks his younger brother at the end. “It was just a joke.” “Why didn’t you tell me,” Joey says and that’s a wrap. In the meanwhile Little Fugitive, awash in the imagery of the great photographer Ruth Orkin, creates its own iconography. The motto is, don’t ever underestimate the intelligence of the movie going public. Just because Hollywood plays to the lowest common denominator doesn’t mean that audiences aren’t capable of a helluva lot more (Little Fugitive opened in 5000 theaters in l953) and still can draw substantial audiences today. Little Fugitive is a great American movie that proves the point.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful comments about a wonderful movie. thanks, Elinor


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