Reel Brooklyn is a biweekly column chronicling the definitive history of Brooklyn on-screen, one film—and neighborhood—at a time.
Kings County paleontologists have swooned over Morris Engel’s Little Fugitive (1953) practically since it was made—a rough, unassuming indie document of Brooklyn-ness in the mid-century, it nevertheless won a top prize at the Venice Film Festival, got nominated for a screenplay Oscar (a feat for largely improvised film with little dialogue), and played in 5,000 U.S. theaters. There’s virtually nothing to it except that: the exquisite now-ness of 1953 Bensonhurst, Bath Beach, and, to a definitive extent, Coney Island. The story is deliberately simplistic: a pug-faced Bay Parkway seven-year-old (the since-famous non-pro Richie Andrusco) runs away, after thinking he’d accidentally killed his older brother while playing in a Gravesend lot, to Coney Island. Once there, the tough little man, however haunted with guilt, gets instantly distracted by the possibilities of what used to be called the Poorman’s Paradise.
Engel, along with compatriots Ray Ashley and Ruth Orkin, using a specially-built chest-strapped 35mm camera, gets distracted, too, but describing the film as a time-capsule portrait of the neighborhood, as everyone does, make it sound trivial. On the contrary: it’s a heartbreaking love song to Coney-ness and childhood both, and today those two quantities seem one and the same. From the glimpses of Bonomo’s Salt Water Taffy, the Wonder Wheel, the old 60th Precinct house, and shaded life under the boardwalk, to the total immersion in the cheapjack carnival experience of the Steeplechase complex, the film is a raw ballad to a vanished America. Watching Andrusco, who was only playing himself (he lived on Bay Parkway), handle a watermelon slice bigger than his torso, shruggingly face off adults at the arcades, and scrounge the crowded beach for returnable Coke bottles is close to being right there, and to walking in those tiny, sole-worn Keds. Often the film finds beautiful details without him—the soaked vacationers waiting under the pavilions for a rainstorm to pass, the gear-heavy surfcasters heading toward the sea at dusk as the beachgoers head home, all of it apprehended, documentary-style, from real life.
Coney Island has not lacked for use as a movie location—cameras have been recording its unique history of proletariat leisure since 1897 (including a 1917 Buster Keaton-Fatty Arbuckle two-reeler), but no film ever painted as vivid and varied a portrait as Engel’s. The movie’s sidelining of traditional narrative drive and depth, in favor of poetic observation and organic authenticity, was something of a huge innovation, however modest it felt then and feels now. People, including novices John Cassavetes and François Truffaut, knew the electric charge of reality when they felt it, and without Little Fugitive, there might not have been a true pro-am French New Wave, and therefore, perhaps, no natural-lighting-real-people new wave movement at large. Before Engel, “indies” were exploitation and genre ripoffs, destined for the grindhouses and drive-ins, and didn’t dally in afternoon sunlight watching real people being themselves any more than Hollywood did. Before Engel, shooting an entire dramatic film as if it were a spontaneous documentary in which very little happens was virtually unheard of.
Certainly, it was as if no one had ever photographed a real child doing childish things before. Freckly, beady-eyed Andrusco, who’s now in his 70s and living in Oregon, is here just a paradigmatic kid exuding no extraordinary resources of charisma or camera-love (you never catch him acting), but since essential, unfettered boyness was and still is rare in movies, it’s what makes him compulsively watchable. Still, it’s the world he inhabits, captured with an anthropologist’s patience, that is its own kind of transcendence, a Coney Island captured forever as indelibly as Flaherty’s Arctic Circle and Godard’s Champs-Elysees, a place and time that has since vanished like prairie settlements.