Morris Engel: 'Little Fugitive' Director & Indie Pioneer Has Died

by Andre Soares
Little Fugitive Morris Engel'Little Fugitive' director Morris Engel.

'Little Fugitive' director Morris Engel dead at 86

Morris Engel, hailed as one of the fathers of American independent cinema and whose 1953 cinéma vérité effort Little Fugitive received an Academy Award nomination for Best Motion Picture Story, died of cancer on March 5, '05, in New York City (2005). Engel was 86.

Clearly influenced by the Italian neo-realist movement, Little Fugitive was shot in documentary style and featured a cast of unknowns. The simple storyline follows a six-year-old boy (Richie Andrusco) who runs away from home because he mistakenly believes he has killed his brother. The boy eventually finds himself lost among the sites and sounds of Coney Island.

Only three feature films

Born in Brooklyn (on April 8, 1918), Morris Engel first worked as a still photographer.

He co-directed Little Fugitive with Raymond Abrashkin (billed as Ray Ashley) and fellow photographer and girlfriend (and later wife) Ruth Orkin. All three were credited for the film's story, with Writers Guild nominee Abrashkin / Ashley receiving credit for the actual screenplay.

Engel would direct only two more movies: Lovers and Lollipops (1956) and Weddings and Babies (1958). The latter was the only one of his films to boast the presence of an actual movie star, Viveca Lindfors.

'Little Fugitive' influence

Little Fugitive's no-frills, no-stars, no-plot approach would exert a strong influence on other American independent filmmakers, and even those in other countries, such as Albert Lamorisse (The Red Balloon, 1956) and François Truffaut (The 400 Blows, 1959). In fact, that influence can be felt in films as recent as Jafar Panahi's 1995 Iranian drama The White Balloon.

Truffaut once stated that “our French New Wave would never have come into being if it hadn't been for Little Fugitive.”

Engel countered that the claim was “ridiculous – but I am not going to argue.”

Little Fugitive film 1953'Little Fugitive' 1953 film: Richie Andrusco.

Silver Lion co-winner

Little Fugitive lost the Best Motion Picture Story Oscar to Paramount's Roman Holiday, a thoroughly conventional Hollywood effort directed by William Wyler and starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn.*

In addition to its Oscar nomination, Little Fugitive shared the 1953 Venice Film Festival's Silver Lion and was one of the National Board of Review's top ten films of the year.†

'Morris Engel: The Independent'

Update: Directed by Morris Engel's daughter, Mary Engel, the documentary Morris Engel: The Independent was released on DVD by Kino International in 2008.

The documentary includes interviews with Howard Greenberg, Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker, Albert Maysles, and Little Fugitive star Richie Andrusco, among others.

Dalton Trumbo front, no Golden Lion

* Ian McLellan Hunter, a front for blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, was originally credited for the film's story. Decades later, Trumbo finally had his contribution officially recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

† The Golden Lion was not awarded that year. Little Fugitive shared the Silver Lion with the following:

  • The Adulteress / Thérèse Raquin.
    Dir.: Marcel Carné.
  • Ugetsu.
    Dir.: Kenji Mizoguchi.
  • Moulin Rouge.
    Dir.: John Huston.
  • I Vitelloni.
    Dir.: Federico Fellini.
  • Sadko.
    Dir.: Aleksandr Ptushko.

 

Morris Engel: The Independent image: Kino International.

Richie Andrusco Little Fugitive 1953 image: Kino.

Little Fugitive awards info via the IMDb.

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