As many critics have noted, Little Fugitive (1953) has–to put it mildly–a minimalist story: 7-year-old Joey (Richie Andrusco) is the butt of a cruel joke and goes on the lam believing he’s killed his older brother Lennie (Richard Brewster). He heads to Coney Island where he wanders around, stuffs himself full of carnival food, collects empty bottles for nickels, and rides a pony around a pitiful little race track about a hundred times. The narrative, however, is not what’s groundbreaking about this film.
As soon as Joey arrives at Coney Island, the story (its caricatures and all other trappings of the 1950s television-era) melts into the background. Shot with a concealed strap-on 35mm camera, what emerges from these bare narrative bones is a rare historical document of Coney Island–its beaches, hotdogs, lovers, ferris wheels, and its tens of thousands inhabitants all caught performing their minor roles in the chaos of their natural habitat.
Amidst the inherent overstimulation of Coney Island on a summer day, Morris Engle (who shot the film and also wrote and directed it along with Ray Ashley and Ruth Orkin) beats a path for his young protagonist. Joey weaves and darts among bigger bodies, squeezing by and bumping into them the way focused kids do when they are after a stray ball or have just found change for more sugar. The camera most often at waist height, Engle recognizes the inevitable slapstick of being little and the utter sweetness of demanding to be taken seriously anyway. So we can’t help but be endeared when Joey tackles a piece of watermelon so big it eclipses his entire upper-half or, in perhaps the best sequence of the film, swings a baseball bat so hard it turns him around and furrows his brow pitch after pitch.
And yet, as hilarious as these moments are, Little Fugitive also casts a sensitive gaze on what it’s like to be small and lost in a world that’s not built for you…turns out it’s a lonely and filthy reality where triumphs are hard-earned but fleeting and there’s no choice but to live moment by moment. This, perhaps, does not make a “good story” or so Bosley Crowther for the New York Times seemed to think when, upon the film’s 1953 release, he wrote, “there is little conception of drama in this trick, and the mere repetition of adventures tends eventually to grow dull” and “count it a photographer’s triumph with a limited theme.”
This “repetition of adventures” and “limited theme,” however, is what inspired Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows which kicked off the French New Wave. Little Fugitive‘s affective duration, the attention it grants to mere human existence, and its will to record a specific time and place was seen by cutting-edge French filmmakers and Neo-Realists around the world as a vital testament to humanity in all its everyday joys and tragedies. Luckily for us, there is an adorable pint-sized fugitive and a lot of over-sized snacks at the center of this “bad story” and landmark film.