Sunday, July 10, 2011

Underrated Movie #122: The Little Fugitive

Title: The Little Fugitive
Year: 1953
Directors: Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin and Ray Ashley
Writers: Ashley and Engel
Stars: Richie Andrusco, Richard Brewster, Winifred Cushing

The Story: When a Brooklyn single mom has a family emergency, she leaves her 12 year old to take care of her 7 year old. The older brother’s friends pull a mean trick and convince the 7-year old that he’s killed his older brother. Freaking out, the kid takes the emergency money and flees to live as a fugitive at Coney Island. As his money runs out and he starts to get scared, his brother conducts a desperate search…

How it Came to be Underrated: This was one of the few totally independent American movies of the ‘50s, self-made and self-distributed, meaning that almost no one saw it outside of festivals and museums. It has been rediscovered a few times over the years, only to disappear again. It was on VHS briefly, then it wasn’t on DVD for a long time. It’s always been a favorite among the lucky few who know about it.

Why It’s Great:

  1. The best independent movies have always been those that did stuff that Hollywood movies couldn’t do. This movie was made at a time when Hollywood’s prestige and budgets could not have been bigger, but their artificiality at its peak as well. When MGM made its own movie about poor kids in NYC two years later, Blackboard Jungle, they told director Richard Brooks that there couldn’t be any fingerprint smudges on the walls because that would look too tacky. The startling, gorgeous realism of New York in this cheap little movie is something that Hollywood couldn’t capture at any price.
  2. Bell and Howell had invented new lightweight 16mm cameras for the U. S. army in the war. They were so sturdy that soldiers would use them to hammer nails and they still worked perfectly. After the war, every country that America had rolled through started to use the cameras to make freewheeling beautiful little independent movies, but America itself wouldn’t catch the neorealism fever until the late ‘60s. This movie represents what could have been.
  3. This is a movie of small moments made big by bringing us down to Joey’s size. As adults, we’re deathly worried for him as an unattended kid who doesn’t know how to protect himself, but we’re also equally invested in his own little struggles and victories, even as he remains mostly unaware of the larger dangers. All an audience needs is to watch someone struggle mightily to solve a problem that’s hugely important to them, no matter how big or how small it may seem to us.
  4. I can identify: When I was a child, I found that my socks had picked up some sort of black thorns somewhere. I asked my older brother what they were and he said that they were poisonous insects he had put there to kill me. It was just a tossed-off joke, and he was usually pretty nice to me, but for some reason I believed him, and I was totally freaked out. I didn’t figure out that he’d been kidding for years.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Engel and Orkin somehow scrounged together the resources over the years to make two more excellent follow-up movies that are also well worth watching, Lovers and Lollipops was about a little girl, and Weddings and Babies finally left the kids behind for a story about a commitment-phobic photographer.

How Available Is It?: A year ago, this was on my not-on-DVD round-up, but now it’s on both DVD and Watch Instantly.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Justice Traps the Guilty!


Unknown said...

The title of today's underrated movie caused me to flash on a very different film that I saw once on TV, decades ago. It has little to do with today's film (except for having a major child character) but it reminds me in other ways of "Ball of Fire" (which you featured last week). Are you familiar with an old film featuring Margaret O'Brien (I think) where she, as a very young child, ends up being entrusted to an eclectic and eccentric group of professors? Does that ring any bells at all?

Matt Bird said...

Nope, not at all. Anybody else?

christinembird said...

Margaret O'Brien's filmography on Wikipedia lists Journey for Margaret (1941) as a possible lead.

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