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Blu-ray Review: Little Fugitive (1953)

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The Film

A predecessor of the French New Wave and a key film in the fledgling American independent film movement, Morris Engel, Ray Ashley and Ruth Orkin’s Little Fugitive is a film of modest means and ambitions but deceptive power. The film’s blunt, direct storytelling combined with its frequently wordless, observational passages make for a moving, sometimes emotionally harrowing portrait of a youngster all alone in the world. The film’s tone doesn’t necessarily reflect that – it’s a good-natured, gently comedic romp for the most part, but it’s easy to see how the unadorned, handheld camerawork paved the road for a number of more overtly fraught New Wave classics, like The 400 Blows. Truffaut said, “Our New Wave would never have come into being if it hadn’t been for … Little Fugitive.”

Little Fugitive

The film stars a cast of nonprofessionals in its story of 7-year-old Joey (Richie Andrusco), a cowboy-obsessed Brooklyn boy who wants nothing more than to be treated as an equal by older brother Lennie (Richard Brewster) and his friends. Bothered by Joey’s insistence on being included in everything, the older guys cook up a scheme with ketchup and a cap gun to convince Joey he accidentally killed Lennie. The ruse works a little too well, prompting Joey to run before the cops can arrest him, and he boards the nearest train to Coney Island.

An oft-used cinematic signifier of otherworldly fantasy, Coney Island is shot differently here than some of its iconic appearances in films like Paul Fejos’ Lonesome and Harold Lloyd’s Speedy. Engel and company refrain mostly from grand, expansive wide shots. It’s not that Joey isn’t enthralled by the spectacle – he certainly is, and uses several dollars stolen from the nightstand to stuff his face with treats, ride the carousel and perfect his aim at the ball-throwing game – but the camera keeps its gaze mostly fixed on Joey in a number of extended, wordless sequences. The sensory overload allows him to forget his troubles, and we see his inherent resourcefulness kick in as he collects bottles to earn more money for rides, but this is a portrait of a boy lonely and alone in a way that extends beyond his solo outing.

The film’s most telling sequence is one where Joey latches onto a pony ride attendant, with the actual ride allowing him to fulfill some cowboy dreams and the kindly man filling a fleetingly fatherly role for the boy. He goes back again and again, nabbing Pepsi bottles off the beach to earn the quarters that will momentarily transport him. The filmmakers don’t play this up – like nearly every scene, it’s shot with a dispassionate, observational remove, but the effect is undeniably poignant even as the film is wrapped up with a happy, winking conclusion.

The Blu-ray Disc

Presented in 1080p high definition in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, Kino’s transfer of Little Fugitive is sourced from a 35mm print preserved by The Museum of Modern Art, and is generally fantastic. The image is exceptionally film-like, with an unadulterated layer of film grain and nicely rendered fine detail. Blacks are rich and deep while whites are stable, and the image is consistently sharp and clear, only looking a little soft on occasion. Damage is sprinkled throughout, but there’s nothing particularly egregious. The experience is definitely akin to watching a beautiful 35mm print. Audio is presented in an uncompressed mono track, which is fine if rather harsh and edgy at points. No synchronous sound was recorded; it was all dubbed in later, and the somewhat hollow dialogue reflects that.

Special Features

Kino carries over all the extras from its DVD edition, including an audio commentary by the late director Engel and two documentary shorts by daughter Mary Engel on her father and mother Orkin. A photo gallery and the film’s theatrical trailer are also included.

The Bottom Line

A seminal work of American independent film, Little Fugitive gets a sterling Blu-ray upgrade.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.