When most people think of 1950s kid actors, they think of Lassie and Ricky Nelson and The Mickey Mouse Club. You might not have heard of Richie Andrusco, whose first and only role was seven-year-old Joey Norton in 1953’s Little Fugitive, but he had an impact equal to any of those better-known moppets. No cloying sweetie, Joey looks like a Little Rascal and talks like a junior Bowery Boy. He’s a tagalong pest to older brother Lennie, who with his friends and horror comics hatches plans to “moiduh” Joey. Instead of that, they hit on a better idea: fooling Joey into thinking he has killed Lennie, which sends Joey scampering, in a panic, to the Coney Island–bound train. The bulk of Little Fugitive follows Joey, alone; the film’s genius is how completely it tunes in to his experience, delicately outlining Joey’s private moments of shame, elation, despondency, and pride. (The film was an indelible influence on François Truffaut and his 1959 The 400 Blows.) Seemingly pulled along by Andrusco’s spontaneity, the film is also an adventure in perception, full of anecdotal asides in which Joey’s curiosity reintroduces us to commonplace things: the way cotton candy is made, the distorted views through a portrait photographer’s camera or a funhouse mirror, the way sunlight comes through the slats in the boardwalk. Co-directed by Raymond Abrashkin and the husband-wife photographer team of Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin, the independent, proto-vérité Little Fugitive is also a photojournalistic document of time and place, rich with moments of grotty beauty, like the images of the funfair under rain. “Reality” is a tricky and quicksilver thing to try to capture, but Little Fugitive comes closer than most movies before it cared to try.
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