How the French New Wave got its start at Coney Island

For its foreshadowing of the contemporary indie movie, 1953’s “Little Fugitive” is a part of film history.
For its foreshadowing of the contemporary indie movie, 1953’s “Little Fugitive” is a part of film history.
image COURTESY OF THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART

There are three ways of looking at “Little Fugitive,” which starts a five-day run at the Museum of Fine Arts on Wednesday. The 1953 film was jointly written and directed by the novelist Raymond Abrashkin (under the name Ray Ashley) and the married couple Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin. Engel also shot it, and Orkin helped edit it. It’s the story of a 7-year-old boy, Joey (Richie Andrusco), who ends up by himself at New York’s Coney Island amusement park.

The first way to look at “Little Fugitive” is as part of film history. For as long as there have been Hollywood movies, there have been non-Hollywood movies: everything from industrial films to avant-garde experiments to features aimed at ethnic audiences. “Little Fugitive” may qualify as the first American film that can be described as “indie” in the way we now use the term: a feature-length work of artistic ambition aimed at the popular audience and made outside of the studio system.

“Little Fugitive” foreshadows latter-day indies in another respect: its embrace by the Hollywood establishment. It actually earned an Academy Award nomination, for best story. “Roman Holiday” won. Maybe if the title had been “Coney Island Holiday,” the outcome would have been different? No, not unless Audrey Hepburn played Joey’s mother.

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“Little Fugitive” owns a double place in movie history. Watching Joey at Coney Island or playing in the Brooklyn streets with his brother, Lennie (Richard Brewster), one often thinks of “The 400 Blows” and the New Wave generally. No less of an authority than François Truffaut, director of “The 400 Blows,” said: “Our New Wave would never have come into being, if it hadn’t been for the young American Morris Engel, who showed us the way to independent production with [this] fine movie.”

The second way to view “Little Fugitive” is the most obvious: watching it just as you would any movie. Who needs historical importance once the lights go down and there’s a plot to follow? That plot could hardly be simpler. Joey and Lennie’s mother (Winifred Cushing) has to leave for much of the weekend to tend to the boys’ ailing grandmother. Lennie, who’s 12, is charged with looking after his younger brother. Uh-oh? Uh-oh.

The movie’s sentimental and more inert than not. Its best story nomination just shows how far back goes the history of inexplicability at the Academy. That the filmmakers were able to make “Little Fugitive” at all is kind of miraculous, but the miraculousness has its limits. The dubbed sound is distracting. The score, which consists of either harmonica or calliope music, is increasingly annoying. As much as “Little Fugitive” looks ahead to the New Wave, it looks back to Italian Neorealism. The comparison doesn’t flatter. That said, Andrusco’s snub-nosed scowl could give Anna Magnani a run for her lire.

The third way of looking at “Little Fugitive,” as a time capsule of Brooklyn life in the ’50s, is the most satisfying. It’s kind of wonderful that way, actually. Engel was a very good photographer (so was Orkin), associated with New York’s Photo League, and that background shows in some striking composition. There’s a hilarious shot of Joey’s face obscured by cotton candy. The slatted light under the boardwalk is startlingly rendered. Most striking of all is an image of a solitary Joey on a stretch of beach otherwise empty except for the metal trash baskets that divide it like oversized surveyor stakes.

This is a world where people still put out wash to dry on fire escapes, watermelon has seeds, amusement park rides cost 9 cents. Joey is the little fugitive of the title, of course, but at the heart of the movie, as its makers could never have imagined 60 years ago, is a much bigger fugitive: time itself.