Little Fugitive is largely regarded as the film that ignited the independent cinema movement. Shot in 1959 in black and white, using only a 35mm camera and amateur actors, the work stands up remarkably well even five decades later.
The story is a charmer. A seven year-old-boy is tricked into believing he’s shot and killed his older brother. Distraught, he flees the neighborhood, and heads for Coney Island. There we experience the magic of childhood–candy floss, the beach, parachute and horse rides, comics and baseball, and carnival games.
I had the opportunity to screen a remastered 1080p Blu-ray transfer ($34.95 list, try Amazon where the disc is going for about $27) of the classic on a on a 120-inch screen. Thankfully The Museum of Modern Art had preserved a 35mm print. Even with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio (television), Morris Engel’s camerawork is expansive, artistic. There’s a whimsical quality to the presentation. Sans tripod or fancy gear, Engel manages to evoke a wide range of emotions. By choosing to occasionally place his camera low, the fairgrounds at Coney Island loom large; the adult world is a mystery, a cacophony of sights and sounds. Figuratively we sense Joey’s confusion and wonderment. Though there’s still occasional artifacts from the print, contrasts are vibrant and noise is minimal (though there’s natural grain which imparts a timeless look). It feels less like a “film” and very much like B&W photographs in motion–if that makes any sense.
Audio is still two channel mono. It’s decent quality. The score (Eddy Hanson) is every bit a central character in Little Fugitive. After a screening you might not be able to get that harmonica or “Home on the Range” out of your head. But, I wonder what the experience would be like with a remastered 5.1 surround track?
Extras include two documentary short films–“Morris Engel The Independent” (2008), “Ruth Orkin: Frames of Life” (1995)–both by Mary Engle, and an intriguing audio commentary by director Morris Engel.
I agree with those who would refer to the 80 minute piece as a time capsule. There’s little depth to the plot. Yet that’s not the point. It’s really one child’s dreamy getaway to Coney Island, and a filmmakers love letter to New York. A celebration of an innocent time that should remain an integral part of American film history.
Little Fugitive (1953)
4.5 out of 5 stars
Re-mastered 1080p Blu-Ray
$34.95 SRP ($27 on Amazon)