Post-WWII American independent cinema pioneer Morris Engel co-directed 1953 cinéma vérité-inspired classic Little Fugitive
More than any other post-World War II filmmaker, Morris Engel deserves the title of “father of the (non-avant-garde) American independent cinema.” The case rests on a single movie: The cinéma vérité-inspired, Coney Island-set runaway boy’s tale Little Fugitive, a 1953 feature that, whether directly or indirectly, became one of the most influential motion pictures ever made.
Of course, Little Fugitive wasn’t created in a cinematic vacuum. Morris Engel himself had been clearly influenced by predecessors in the United States and elsewhere. Among them:
- Robert Flaherty’s faux documentary (“docufiction”) Louisiana Story (1948) and Sidney Meyers’ Academy Award-nominated naturalistic documentary The Quiet One (1949) – both centered on young boys.
- The Italian neorealist movement, minus the socially conscious themes, possibly in addition to Luciano Emmer’s Sunday in August / Domenica d’agosto (1950), a portrait of disparate people spending the day at the beach in Ostia, just outside of Rome.
- Silent/dawn of the sound era releases like F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), which, however stylized and studio-bound, features a lengthy, plotless mid-section partly set at an amusement park; Paul Fejos’ Lonesome (1928), a thematically simple but technically ambitious, Coney Island-set love story; and Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer’s slice-of-life, Berlin-set People on Sunday / Menschen am Sonntag (1930).
Below is a brief overview of Morris Engle’s Little Fugitive and its lasting impact.
From photojournalist to filmmaker
Born in Brooklyn on April 8, 1918, at a young age Morris Engel began working as a bank clerk to help support his widowed mother. In 1936, he joined the Photo League, which combined the art of photography with social awareness, later landing a job as a photojournalist at the liberal New York City daily PM.
During World War II, Engel worked as a combat photographer for the U.S. Navy, being present at the D-Day Normandy landing. After the war, he returned to PM, where fellow photographer and future A Clockwork Orange director Stanley Kubrick became a friend, and worked on assignments for name publications like Collier’s and McCall’s.
Engel had become acquainted with filmmaking while helping out photographer Paul Strand create the pro-union documentary/fiction mix Native Land, released in 1942. His chance to finally make his own movie would materialize once he and fellow WWII combat photographer Charles Woodruff developed a portable 35mm camera.
The light, compact device prevented jittery images without the need for a tripod, at the same time giving its user the ability to film people without being noticed. Just as importantly, Engel would be able to make his own professional-caliber motion picture on a small budget and with a skeleton crew.
Little Fugitive: A big-city boy’s cinéma vérité story
Morris Engel conceived Little Fugitive with photographer Ruth Orkin, who became his wife during the 1952 shooting of the film, and former PM colleague Raymond Abrashkin (billed as Ray Ashley). The trio was credited for the film’s direction and story, with Abrashkin/Ashley named the author of the actual screenplay.
Engel and Abrashkin also wore producer hats, while Orkin shared editing duties with Lester Troob (who doubled as sound/music supervisor in his sole screen credit). Future Emmy nominee Eddy Manson (the DuPont Show of the Month episode “Harvey,” 1957) was responsible for the low-key, mood-enhancing harmonica score. Along the lines of Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and Roberto Rossellini’s Paisan, nonprofessionals were cast in the lead roles.
The simple plot – if it can be called that – revolves around a seven-year-old boy (Richie Andrusco, in his only film appearance) who runs away from home after mistakenly believing he has shot dead his 11-year-old brother (Richard Brewster, also in his film debut/swan song). With a little grocery money in his pocket, the boy eventually finds himself immersed in the sights and sounds of Coney Island.
Little Fugitive was produced for a reported $30,000 (one 1954 source pegged its cost at $87,000), raised from friends. Engel shot the film himself, with his portable camera strapped to his shoulder. Sound and dialogue were added in post-production.
Little Fugitive vs. Hollywood ‘realism’
Little Fugitive was hardly the first postwar American feature to take the action far away from Hollywood studio lots. At least partly influenced by Italian neorealism, Jules Dassin had filmed the cop drama The Naked City (1948) in the streets of New York while Elia Kazan had shot the thriller Panic in the Streets (1950) on location in New Orleans.
Yet The Naked City, Panic in the Streets, and other such “naturalistic” Hollywood productions were also traditional big-studio fare, featuring formal storylines, name actors, studio-schooled behind-the-scenes talent, and sizable budgets.
In that regard, the cheap, independently made, marque-nameless, loosely threaded Little Fugitive was a unique product that would require “specialty” handling.
That job fell to Polish-born indie distributor Joseph Burstyn, who previously had, at times in partnership with Arthur Mayer, brought to the United States European imports such as Jean Renoir’s slice-of-life A Day in the Country, and the neorealist works of Vittorio De Sica (Bicycle Thieves, Miracle in Milan) and Roberto Rossellini (Open City, the polemical L’Amore).
Through Burstyn’s efforts, Little Fugitive was screened in competition at the Venice Film Festival, where it was one of the recipients of that year’s Silver Lion.
As expected, Little Fugitive didn’t break any box office records. Certainly not in a year heralding the arrival of CinemaScope (The Robe, How to Marry a Millionaire), the expansion of 3D (Kiss Me Kate, House of Wax), and the release of sumptuous standard-format color productions (Shane, Mogambo, Salome), all-star prestige titles (From Here to Eternity, Julius Caesar), and saucy comedies (The Moon Is Blue, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes).
But unlike some of its bigger-budget competitors, the modest big-city boy’s tale was warmly received, even if with caveats in some quarters. Here’s the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther:
“The alertness and style of [the filmmakers’] photography are clearly reflective of the demands of the picture-magazine layout. And that is what they’ve mobilized in this film.
“We are not criticizing that, mind you. A day at Coney Island with a small boy, torn between curiosity and survival, can be – and is – a lot of fun….
“But the limits must be perceived and mentioned – there is little conception of drama in this trick, and the mere repetition of adventures tends eventually to grow dull. … [The young brothers’] anxieties are as mild as the summer rain, which pelts the beach and the boardwalk for a climactic moment in the film.
“All hail to Little Fugitive and to those who made it. But count it a photographer’s triumph with a limited theme.”
Not unexpected Oscar nomination
Little Fugitive was named one of the National Board of Review’s top ten films, while Raymond Abrashkin’s all-but-plotless screenplay became a Writers Guild of America Award contender for the year’s Best Written American Drama. (Abrashkin/Ashley lost to Daniel Taradash for From Here to Eternity.)
Additionally, in early 1954 Little Fugitive earned an Academy Award nomination in the Best Motion Picture Story category. That was likely not a major surprise; in previous years, both Louisiana Story and The Quiet One had also been shortlisted for their “story.” (The latter in the “Best Story and Screenplay” category.)
The winner turned out to be another tale about a runaway and an exemplar of slick Hollywood filmmaking: Paramount’s Roman Holiday, which traces the romantic adventures of a young princess (Best Actress Audrey Hepburn) as she promenades incognito throughout Rome.
Little Fugitive influence: John Cassavetes + François Truffaut
In a 1960 interview with The New Yorker’s Lillian Ross, French New Wave filmmaker François Truffaut affirmed: “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.”
All hyperbole aside, Little Fugitive’s no-frills, no-stars, little-to-no-plot approach to narrative cinema did exert a marked influence on filmmakers around the world.
However, in contrast to Engel, Cassavetes managed to keep cranking out movies over the ensuing three decades, receiving Oscar nominations for Faces (Best Original screenplay, 1968) and A Woman Under the Influence (Best Director, 1974) – thus impacting more generations of filmmakers, from Martin Scorsese (“It was after seeing [Shadows], I realized we could make films … nothing was forbidden anymore”) to Jim Jarmusch (“There’s a particular feeling I get when I’m about to see one of your films – an anticipation”).
Elsewhere, besides François Truffaut (The 400 Blows, 1959), the sway of Little Fugitive could be felt in the works of, among others, Albert Lamorisse (The Red Balloon, 1956), Jean-Luc Godard (whose 1960 crime drama Breathless was shot with a handheld camera through the streets of Paris), and, more recently, Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon, 1995).
Regarding Truffaut’s claim that Little Fugitive was the Nouvelle Vague’s originator, Engel would counter decades later in a New York Times interview: “It’s ridiculous, but I am not going to argue.”
Lovers and Lollipops & Weddings and Babies
In spite of Little Fugitive’s critical success and awards season mentions, funding for other Morris Engel projects would prove hard to come by. Probably not helping matters was distributor Joseph Burstyn’s death in 1953.
Hollywood was out of the question. “It was exactly the kind of work that doesn’t appeal to me,” he would tell the Times. “I am happy I didn’t go.”
Engel would direct only two more features in the 1950s, the first one a joint directorial effort with Ruth Orkin:
- Lovers and Lollipops (1956), the story of a widowed New York fashion model (Lori March) whose young daughter (Cathy Dunn, in her only film appearance) disturbs her budding liaison with an engineer (Gerald S. O’Loughlin).
- Weddings and Babies (shot in 1957; released in 1960), supposed to be the first feature “made with a portable camera with synchronous sound attachment” and the only Engel effort to boast the presence of an actual movie star, Viveca Lindfors (Night Unto Night, Moonfleet). The partly autobiographical plot revolves around the relationship between a wedding photographer (John Myhers) and his marriage-and-family-focused assistant (Lindfors).
I Need a Ride to California (1968) was Morris Engel’s first color effort, and his fourth and final feature film. This tale of a young California woman enmeshed with troubled East Village hippies would remain undistributed until its October 2019 premiere at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art.
In the 1990s, Engel worked on a couple of full-length video projects: A Little Bit Pregnant (1994), about an eight-year-old boy discovering the differences between the sexes, and Camellia (1998), centered on a two-year-old girl.
“People are always hunting for something,” he told the Times in 2002. “You only need one piece, one good movie. That’s enough fulfillment for a man’s life.”
Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin remained married until her death at age 63 in 1985. Engel died at age 86 in March 2005 in New York City.
“Morris Engel: Little Fugitive Director” notes
Six Silver Lion winners
- Marcel Carné’s The Adulteress / Thérèse Raquin.
- Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu.
- Federico Fellini’s I Vitelloni.
- Aleksandr Ptushko’s Sadko.
- John Huston’s Moulin Rouge.
Dalton Trumbo front
 Ian McLellan Hunter, a front for blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, was originally credited for the Roman Holiday “story.” Hunter was also credited for the screenplay, alongside John Dighton.
Big-studio actor & director John Cassavetes
 Unlike Morris Engel, John Cassavetes also acted in mainstream Hollywood productions – e.g., Martin Ritt’s Edge of the City (1957), Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968). He was a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee for Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967).
Also unlike Morris Engel, who had no interest in working within Hollywood’s studio system, John Cassavetes would occasionally direct studio films.
Examples include United Artists’ Stanley Kramer-produced A Child Is Waiting (1962), starring Burt Lancaster and Judy Garland, and Columbia Pictures’ Gloria (1980), starring Cassavetes’ wife and frequent collaborator Gena Rowlands.
Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin’s daughter, Mary Engel, mentions her father’s friendship with Stanley Kubrick and Joseph Burstyn’s death in an essay at engelphoto.com.
André Bazin refers to the possible influence of Sunday in August on Little Fugitive in the essay “Fugitives and Criminals,” found in André Bazin, the Critic as Thinker: American Cinema from Early Chaplin to the Late 1950s, translated and edited by R.J. Cardullo.
Morris Engel’s New York Times quotes are found in Dinitia Smith’s February 2002 article “A Filmmaker Who Valued Art More Than Fame.”
Martin Scorsese quote found in David Pirie’s Anatomy of the Movies.
Jim Jarmusch quote from an open letter to John Cassavetes found in Tom Charity’s John Cassavetes: Lifeworks.
In 2008, Kino (now Kino Lorber) released “The Films of Morris Engel,” including Little Fugitive, Lovers and Lollipops, and Weddings and Babies, plus the documentary short Morris Engel: The Independent, directed by Mary Engel.
Joanna Lipper’s Little Fugitive remake came out in 2006, the year after Engel’s death. In the cast: Peter Dinklage, Raquel Castro, Nicolas Salgado, and, as the little boy in Coney Island, David Castro.
Images of Morris Engel, Richie Andrusco in Little Fugitive, and John Myhers and Viveca Lindfors in Weddings and Babies: Kino International.
This Morris Engel article is an expanded version of a brief obit published at the time of Engel’s death.
“Morris Engel: Little Fugitive Director Was Post-WWII American Independent Cinema Pioneer” last updated in July 2021.