Kino Lorber // 1953 // 80 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // March 26th, 2013
Life is just one big carnival ride.
Joey (Richie Andrusco) and Lennie (Richard Brewster) are brothers in Brooklyn who are forced by their mother to spend time together. Lennie wants to go to Coney Island with his friends but his mother (Winifred Cushing, The Story of Mr. Hobbs) informs him that he has to stay home and watch Joey, or take him with. Lennie will have none of this, so he devises a cruel plan that involves Joey being tricked into thinking he's shot and killed his brother. Worried that the police will catch him for this 'accident', Joey runs off to Coney Island where he has a very small adventure among the funhouses and carousels on the boardwalk. There he eats hot dogs, plays on the bumper cars, and meets up with a stranger who helps Joey to find his way back home.
Little Fugitive, one of the first real "independent" films captured on celluloid, ended up being hugely influential on many filmmakers, including François Truffaut, who once noted that, "Our New Wave would never have come into being if it hadn't been for the young American Morris Engel, who showed us the way to independent production with his fine movie Little Fugitive." In 1997 the film was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". It was even nominated for an Academy Award for "Best Story" in 1953. Although rarely seen by audiences today, Little Fugitive is considered a classic by many critics, a film that has reverberated down the decades and helped influence many famous filmmakers.
At its heart, Little Fugitive is really nothing more than the story of a little boy finding escape in amusement park rides and a boardwalk atmosphere. Little Fugitive doesn't really feature much of a story, per say, as much as a glimpse at what it was like to be seven years old in Brooklyn, New York, in the early 1950s. Little Fugitives is filled with shots of boys hanging out on the sand, drinking soda pop, eating corn dogs, and generally horsing around. Although Little Fugitive isn't a documentary, it really isn't full fledged fiction, either (let's say it's a 'quasi-documentary'). Because of how natural the boys are, you never get the impression they are giving a performance as much as having their adventures filmed and included inside the context of a plot (however loose).
The children in the film were mostly unknowns, most of which never went on to star in another film again. Richie Andursco and Richard Brewster do a fine job as Joey and Lennie North, two mischievous boys who are very typical brothers (one wants to always tag along while he other finds him a nuisance). The side story which involves little Joey thinking he's shot and killed his brother is more a trifle than an actually plot line; it exists to show Joey enjoying his time on Coney Island. And what a time he has! Eating candy and running rampart with coins in his pocket, watching Joey go nuts on the boardwalk is one of the little pleasures of Little Fugitive.
The late director Morris Engel (whose films include 1956's Lovers and Lollipops and 1960's Weddings and Babies) sets up every shot plainly and without much razzle-dazzle. Little Fugitive was shot on a shoestring budget of only $30,000 (and this is in 1953 dollars), so Engel had to get creative with his scenes, often filming on the boardwalk with unsuspecting visitors ending up on film. The style pays off as Little Fugitive retains a sense of realism missing in most movies; when little Joey is in a batting cage, the camera shakes as it gets hit by a ball and Joey smiles, having the time of his life. His joy at Coney Island is often infectious, which Little Fugitive all the more entertaining.
I can't really recommend Little Fugitive on the basis of story and character because they aren't really that prevalent. Where Little Fugitive shines is in showing a slice of life that is now long since past. Watching Joey and the other children interact around New York is what makes Little Fugitive such an endearing lost classic.
Little Fugitive is presented in 1.33:1 full frame in 1080p high definition. Mastered from a 35mm print from the Museum of Modern Art, Kino has offered up a sharp image that looks very good. The black levels are solid and transfer retains a very natural feel. That being said, those looking for a pristine print will be disappointed; Little Fugitive sports its fair share of age related imperfections by way of tearing or scratches. Although this print may not be reference quality, it's most likely the best Little Fugitive has ever looked. The soundtrack is presented in LPCM 2.0 Mono and sounds about as good as you'd expect from a low budget film in the early 1950s. There are some pops and crackles in the mix, but it's never so intrusive that it you can't hear what's going on. Obviously, there isn't a lot in the way of directional effects or surround sounds, making this a very front heavy audio mix. No alternate subtitles or soundtracks are available on this disc.
The extra features on this "Special Edition" of Little Fugitive include a 1999 audio commentary by writer/director Morris Engel, a short documentary about Engel created by his daughter Mary ("Morris Engel: The Independent"), a short documentary about Engel's producer/editor/co-writer wife, Ruth Orkin ("Ruth Orkin: Frames of Life"), a theatrical trailer for the film, and an image gallery with around 30 stills.
Little Fugitive is a fine slice of American pie that gives viewers a glimpse into a lost era.
Review content copyright © 2013 Patrick Naugle; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Kino Lorber
* Full Frame (1080p)
* PCM 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 80 Minutes
Release Year: 1953
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Image Gallery