What goes around comes around. Film Forum’s three-week “New Yawk New Wave” series concludes tomorrow (January 31) by screening the tendency’s culminating work, Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets,” then gives a week long run to a new 35mm print what could be considered the “New Yawk New Wave”’s founding film, Morris Engel’s 1953 indie blockbuster “Little Fugitive.”
A barely narrative, location-rich, non-actor stocked cheapster, “Little Fugitive” was anticipated by the work of street photographer Helen Levitt (particularly her independent New York films “In the Street” and “The Quiet One”), inspired by Vittorio DeSica’s “Bicycle Thief” and shot under the sign of Italian neo-realism. Everyday Brooklyn is the context; the fantasy world of Coney Island has never been more lovingly depicted.
A member, like Levitt, of the socially conscious Photo League as well as a former staff photographer for the lefty tabloid PM, Engel had ample appreciation for Coney as New York’s human comedy. At the same time, few movies have been more dedicated to a child’s point of view. The rides, the boardwalk, the crowds, the hucksters, and the beach are rigorously presented from the perspective of a dour seven-year-old cowboy who has taken it on the lam, running away from deepest Bensonhurst because the neighborhood kids have led him to believe that he plugged his older brother with a cap gun. Funny? Yes. Colorful? Undoubtedly. Cute? Not really—and that’s the beauty part.
You might say that Engel identified the kid’s existential situation with his own as he felt his way through his first feature film. Reviewing “The Little Fugitive” in the New York Times, Bosley Crowther was, although generally favorable, a bit put off by the movie’s amateurism, declaring that it “does not bear criticism as a finished professional job.” But “Little Fugitive” had already been recognized in Europe, sharing top prize at the Venice Film Festival with Federico Fellini’s “I Vitelloni” and three other movies.
François Truffaut saw “Little Fugitive” in Venice and, appreciative of Engel’s informality, would later credit it with inspiring the French nouvelle vague. That does seem unduly generous but anyone familiar with both films can see ample traces of Engel’s first film in Truffaut’s 1958 debut feature, “The 400 Blows.”
Photo: Jenny Jediny