BROOKLYN, SOUTH / ONE NITE ONLY: LITTLE FUGITIVE (Morris Engel, Ray Ashley, and Ruth Orkin, 1953)
Nitehawk Cinema Prospect Park
188 Prospect Park West
Wednesday, June 19, 7:45
One of the most influential and important — and vastly entertaining — works to ever come out of New York City, Morris Engel’s charming Little Fugitive will be having a special screening with live music on June 19 at 7:45 at the Nitehawk Cinema at Prospect Park, performed by Reel Orchestrette, which has previously provided live accompaniment to such diverse films as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Faust, Wings, The Holy Mountain, and Our Gang and Buster Keaton shorts. Written and directed with Ray Ashley and Ruth Orkin, Engel’s future wife, Little Fugitive follows the gritty, adorable exploits of seven-year-old wannabe cowboy Joey Norton (Richie Andrusco, in his only film role), who runs away to Coney Island after his older brother, Lennie (Richard Brewster), and his brother’s friends, Harry (Charlie Moss) and Charley (Tommy DeCanio), play a trick on the young boy, using ketchup to convince Joey that he accidentally killed Lennie. With their single mother (Winifred Cushing) off visiting her ailing mother, Joey heads out on his own, determined to escape the cops who are surely after him. But once he gets to Coney Island, he decides to take advantage of all the crazy things to be found on the beach, along the boardwalk, and in the surrounding area, including, if he can get the money, riding a real pony.
A no-budget black-and-white neo-Realist masterpiece shot by Engel with a specially designed lightweight camera that was often hidden so people didn’t know they were being filmed, Little Fugitive explores the many pleasures and pains of childhood and the innate value of home and family. As Joey wanders around Coney Island, he meets all levels of humanity, preparing him for the world that awaits as he grows older. Meanwhile, Engel gets into the nooks and crannies of the popular beach area, from gorgeous sunrises to beguiling shadows under the boardwalk. In creating their beautifully told tale, Engel, Ashley, and Orkin use both trained and nonprofessional actors, including Jay Williams as Jay, the sensitive pony ride man, and Will Lee, who went on to play Mr. Hooper on Sesame Street, as an understanding photographer, while Eddie Manson’s score continually references “Home on the Range” (although there’s no telling what Reel Orchestrette will do). Rough around the edges in all the right ways, Little Fugitive became a major influence on the French New Wave, with François Truffaut himself singing its well-deserved praises. There’s really nothing quite like it, before or since. The underground classic, which won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1953, was nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar, was entered into the National Film Registry in 1997, and was recently restored, features several long, dialogue-free scenes, so the live score should be quite a treat.