The Films of Morris Engel

The name Morris Engel may not be synonymous with the French New Wave, but according to no less an authority than director Fran‡ois Truffaut, Engel was an essential progenitor of the cinematic movement. Little Fugitive, Engel’s independent feature of 1953, provided a virtual blueprint for what an outside-the-Hollywood establishment film could achieve; a work born of personal will and vision whose individuality wasn?t lost on the aspiring directors of Paris or such maverick American independents as John Cassavetes. A virtually plotless tale of a seven-year-old who runs away from his New York apartment to roam throughout Coney Island, Little Fugitive benefits from charmingly unselfconscious performances from its young leads and Engel?s documentary-styled direction. His camera seems to follow, rather than lead, the precocious protagonist as he weaves his way through the massive crowds thronging the beach, partaking of the amusement park attractions and interacting with the carnies that line the streets. (Truffaut fans will recognize specific references to Little Fugitive throughout his 1959 debut, The 400 Blows.) Not least of the film?s wonders is its time capsule quality. The Coney Island of the early ’50s is brought back to life in all its wonderful, tawdry glory. Keep your Disney fantasy lands — Coney, as Engel well knew, was the real thing.