Coney Island Odyssey5/10
In the summer of 1952 an accomplished still photographer from Brooklyn named Morris Engel got together with his photographer - wife Ruth Orkin and friend Ray Ashley to collaborate on the making of a small independent movie.
Made on a shoestring budget using an innovative , lightweight 35mm camera , Engel and company proceeded to spend a few months filming the story of a 7 year-old boy who escapes to Coney Island for a day and a night after being led to believe that he killed his own brother. The resultant film , LITTLE FUGITIVE , was turned down by every major distributor . Photographed in black and white and with a running time of a mere 80 minutes , the bigger releasing corporations looked down on this picture as if it were an alien product , an unappetizing little "stinker" that boasted very little dialog ( and what there was of it was post-synchronized in a studio) ; that employed a single harmonica for a background music score ; and last but not least had a mundane setting of Brooklyn row houses and declining Coney Island for a setting.
The production's uncertain future was rescued when Joseph Burstyn , an American distributor of prestige foreign films , decided to give the movie a chance. That decision led to LITTLE FUGITIVE winning the Silver Lion for best direction at the Venice Film Festival.
This utterly charming , simple tale of a little boy's adventures at Coney Island belies the arduous work behind the camera that resulted in a bona fide American classic. Ashley , Engel and Orkin's original screenplay centers on a small group of young boys , particularly 12 year old Lennie and his younger brother Joey. The fulcrum on which the story's lever turns involves Lennie and Joey's mother having to leave home unexpectedly to look after their ailing grandmother. Lennie's plans to take a trip to Coney Island with his friends is thwarted because of this. In response to his protests ,Lennie's mother tells him that he has to stay home and take care of Joey , that he's "the man of the family" now (the father is absent) and that Coney Island will just have to wait . A disgruntled Lennie takes up his baby sitting duties begrudgingly , and is none too appreciative when little Joey tries to appease his anger with the gift of an old , battered baseball as a birthday present.
In a later conversation with his friends , fueled by the fantasies of comic book reading , Lennie is given suggestions on how to get rid of his little brother so the gang can go to Coney Island. A plan is conceived , a real rifle is obtained , and a mock murder takes place , with a panic-stricken Joey,having been shown how to shoot a rifle by one of the boys , thinks he has murdered his brother. In tears, Joey runs home, hides in a closet , but soon climbs out an apartment window and onto the streets of Brooklyn , convinced , in the word's of one of Lennie's friends , that he'll "fry " in the electric chair. Seeing a neighborhood cop around the corner doesn't help ,so Joey hops on a subway car : Last Stop , Coney Island.
Back at the apartment , a nervous Lennie arrives to find his brother missing , having no idea Joey is headed alone to the amusement paradise.
The aforementioned scenes , which comprise about the first third of the film , are the heaviest dialog - wise. All the young actors are remarkably natural , and they render the obviously scripted words convincingly. If LITTLE FUGITIVE has any fault at all , it is in these introductory scenes ; the dialog ,as written , is somewhat flat . However , the sequences move swiftly , and the movie really takes off once Joey arrives at Coney Island.
Here is the heart of this movie , an extraordinary , extended episodic adventure of one child's day at Coney Island. And here is where Richie Andrusco , who plays Joey , really shines. This remarkable little boy , who seems to be one half angelic choirboy , the other half full of the devil , is truly a real find. Discovered by the film team riding the Coney Island Steeplechase Carousel , director Engel was impressed with the boy's "animal strength". Employing a nonprofessional is a risky venture and LITTLE FUGITIVE nearly succumbed to disaster when early in the filming Richie decided he didn't want to play Joey anymore. In an inspiring moment of chutzpah , Mr. Engel asked Richie what he would like to do , and then gave the kid money to go on any rides or games he wanted to play , plied him with endless amounts of food and drink ( soda pop , hot dogs , cotton candy and watermelon , enormous amounts of which must have been consumed during the June through September shoot ! ) In essence , as Engel has stated many times in the past , Richie Andrusco pretty much directed the narrative course of this picture himself , Engel following in tow , his tripod - less camera hung around his neck , capturing the character Joey's every move.
Joey's adventures and travails are resolved rather predictably at the end , and the scripted dialog once again takes over ,still somewhat stilted and flat . But it hardly matters , because Morris Engel has taken the viewer on a journey into the heart of one irresistible little boy , and in the process has recaptured for the tired old adult in us the chance to experience the curiosity , joy and terror of childhood once again.