The original movie location, beloved by the makers of primitive actualités and slapstick comedians alike, Coney Island was never more lovingly depicted than in Morris Engel’s 1953 Little Fugitive—the blockbuster hit of New York Neo-Realism.
Few movies have been more dedicated to a child’s point of view. The rides, the boardwalk, the crowds, and the beach are rigorously presented from the perspective of a dour seven-year-old cowboy who has taken it on the lam, running away from deepest Bensonhurst because the neighborhood kids have led him to believe that he plugged his older brother with a cap gun. Funny? Yes. Colorful? Undoubtedly. A former staff photographer for the lefty tabloid PM, Engel had ample appreciation for Coney Island as New York’s human comedy. Cute? Not really—and that’s the beauty part. Engel manages to identify the kid’s existential situation with his own as he felt his way through his first feature film.
An outgrowth of street photography, inspired by Open City and The Bicycle Thief, New York Neo-Realism was the main independent tendency of the post–World War II decade; it was anticipated by Helen Levitt’s mid-’40s project In the Street and culminated in John Cassavetes’s late-’50s Shadows (which created a new actor-driven paradigm for local indies). NY N-R feature docs and doc-style features include Sidney Meyer’s The Quiet One, Stanley Kubrick’s Killer’s Kiss, and Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery, but it was Engel’s film that gave the movement an international presence. Little Fugitive won a prize at the 1953 Venice Film Festival (and was generously credited by François Truffaut with inspiring the nouvelle vague), but Engel would never repeat its success, either critically or aesthetically.
Kino’s new DVD box set packages Little Fugitive with Lovers and Lollipops (1955) and Weddings and Babies (1958), two crisply photographed urban fairy tales that Engel made in collaboration with his wife, the photographer Ruth Orkin. Lovers and Lollipops uses summertime Manhattan and Rye Playland, rather than Coney, as its magical backdrop and features a kid as naturalistic in her brattiness as the little Fugitive was in his deadpan affect. (She’s something of a pint-sized terrorist, who takes as her mission the destruction of her widowed mother’s new romance.) Weddings and Babies, which went unreleased until 1960, is another sort of love story, concerning a Lower East Side photographer who refuses to settle down with his long-suffering assistant. Although she’s played by Viveca Lindfors, the most stellar performer in the Engel oeuvre, the movie is stolen by another found natural, 75-year-old Chiarina Barile, incredibly ancient and incomparably dignified, as the photographer’s Old World mama.
Weddings and Babies is certainly the most extensive portrait of Manhattan’s Little Italy before Martin Scorsese’s incomparable Mean Streets (surely the greatest successor to the NY N-R of the 1950s). Engel and Orkin’s familiarity with local geography underscores the bleakest scene in any of their movies. Like the little Fugitive, Mama runs away—not to Coney Island, but to see the grave site that awaits her, one stone among a million in that vast necropolis gazing on the city’s distant skyline from the shadow of the BQE.
The Films of Morris Engel With Ruth Orkin: Little Fugitive, Lovers and Lollipops, Weddings and Babies (Kino International) is available now at kino.com/video.