The Little Fugitive (1953)

Posted by on Jan 2, 2012 in All Play and No Work | 0 comments

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Disclaimer: A child shoots a real gun. With a real bullet. That kills his brother. Except not really.

I’m not going to sugar-coat it. The first 20 minutes or so of The Little Fugitive is pretty rough to get through. The cheesy narration with accents sounding like Goodfellas in training. The dialogue slightly off from the actors’ lips (from being over-dubbed in post-production). The terrible line reading from non-acting kids. There’s no getting around it; it’s a rough start. And I barely made it through. But I’m so glad I did.

All you need to take from the rough beginning is the rudimentary nature of the characters and plot. There’s two brothers. Lennie (Richard Brewster) is turning 12, loves his harmonica, and playing with his roughian friends around their Brooklyn digs. He hates looking after his 7-year-old brother Joey (Richie Andrusco), who loves cowboys, but he’s forced to because they’re without a father and their mother is a working class hero.

In a most unfortunate circumstance Fugitive2(but a convenient catalyst for the plot), mom must leave town for a few days, during which time Lennie’s birthday will arrive. He expected to go to Coney Island with his friends, but instead he’s forced to look after Joey. Full of resentment, Lennie and his friends devise a terrible scheme (that plays routinely, as if they do these kinds of things to torment Joey all the time). They grab a real rifle and play with it unloaded, letting their imaginations do the wounding. That is, until they let Joey have a bullet and take a real shot at a can. Something the cowboy-obsessed Joey obviously likes. When he shoots, Lennie hits the floor and spreads ketchup all over his chest. The friends then convince Joey that he killed his brother. And he goes on the lam.

From the second Joey gets off the train at Coney Island, the movie is pure genius. There’s almost no dialogue, some jaw-dropping black-and-white hand-held photography, and a child’s point-of-view executed with such precision that it creates an amazing empathetic experience.

As written and directed by Morris Engel, Ray Ashley, and Ruth Orkin, The Little Fugitive is an American film that directly influenced Francois Truffaut to create The 400 Blows and introduce the world to the French New Wave. It’s more accessible than The 400 Blows (a superior and landmark film), but that said, The Little Fugitive is probably “slow” by today’s standards. It’s not exactly riveting, edge-of-your-seat stuff. But it has affecting beauty for those with patience.

Joey is a lilliputian in a world of giants and madness. At first Joey goes nuts – riding carousels and getting a picture with a cowboy cutout, but eventually that excitement fades and the reality of what has happened hits. Close-up shots of Joey’s face tells most of the story, as his freckled pudgy cheeks fall, his heavy lips sink, and the sadness in his eyes wells.

Simple moments like these are enrapturing. As are shots of Joey trying to make sense of a camera and why images look upside down, walking along a line of giant milk bottles, or scavenging for glass bottles under the boardwalk to earn more money and go on horse rides. His experiences are ours. The rides, the eavesdropping, the lessons, the sights, and sounds. And especially the disappointments. Like seeing other brothers together. Or fathers and sons.

No matter how well things go in his few days on the lam, he is often reminded of what he believes to be the sad truth. It’s crushing. And it doesn’t matter that we know it’s not real. To him, it is real. And that’s all that matters.

When little Joey grows up to be Joe or Joseph, he will be a different man because of those few days. He experienced a pain that is as real as anything he’ll encounter as an adult, and he does so at seven. His brother is meanwhile scouring the borough for Joey, and he will have learned a lesson, too. You can’t help but think the amount of torment Joey gets from his older brother will slow considerably in the days that follow the film’s timeline.

It’s a combination of the cinema verite style (which went so far as to capture real people with a hidden camera so they don’t even know they’re in a movie) and the characters and their interactions (the screenplay got an Oscar nomination) that make The Little Fugitive feel real and genuine.

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