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Essential Reading: Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin

It’s not hard to see why Engel and Orkin’s films were inspiring not only to the French New Wave but also to American auteurs like Cassavetes and Scorsese.

By Kevin B. Lee November 26, 2010


Under the Boardwalk: Richie Andrusco in LITTLE FUGITIVE

At Pop Matters, Michael Antman gives Little Fugitive 8 out of 10 and explains why:

Seeing the toothy, freckled Andrusco consume a large slice of watermelon, or struggle in a batting cage with a bat that is far too heavy for him, or collect empty bottles of soda pop for spare change, is an oddly beautiful experience: It is like watching one’s own dim memories of childhood come back to life in a way that virtually no contemporary movie, with its over-determined and focus-grouped stories and expensive effects – talk about garish and grotesque! – could possibly hope to do.

Morris Engel sets up a shot in LOVERS AND LOLLIPOPS

Watch Little Fugitive and Lovers and Lollipops on Fandor.

The New York Times still carries its original first-release reviews of Little Fugitive and Lovers and Lollipops, both written by Bosley Crowther. Crowther’s 1953 review of Little Fugitive proves initially skeptical, using the filmmakers’ photojournalistic backgrounds against them:

This small item, which was put together by a group of young folks whose previous experience had been as still photographers and free-lance journalists, is essentially a documentation of juvenile fancy and caprice hung upon a mere situation, with slight dramatic conflict and form. And what there is of the latter is so unskillfully performed that it does not bear criticism as a finished professional job.

But by 1955’s Lovers and Lollipops review, Crowther seems to have come around:

Mr. Engel and Miss Orkin have made their picture a very handsome and subtle synthesis of photographic communication and suggestion. Their straight camera work is superb. Virtually every shot could be submitted in a contest for still photographs. They dote on such things as the reflections of buildings in windows, clouds, shadows, automobile grillwork, animals in the zoo.

Poets of Everyday Life” – Garry Morris at Bright Lights Film Journal on the pioneers of American neorealism:

The verite photographic style can be attributed to an unusual camera designed by Engel and produced by Charlie Woodruff. This camera was small and portable, attached by a single strap to the shoulder, allowing Engel to shoot unnoticed in crowds, from inside dicey spaces (like a baseball batting cage), and even from a moving amusement park ride — all the while maintaining a steady image indistinguishable from the professional tripod-style cameras. In this sense the device could be seen as a prototype for the steadicam.

Orkin and Engel pose before their photos

It’s not hard to see why Little Fugitive, Engel and Orkin’s most famous and successful film, was so inspiring not only to the French but also to American auteurs like Cassavetes (Shadows) and Scorsese (Who’s That Knocking on My Door?). Like the two features that would follow it, Little Fugitive is a paean to the sights, smells, and sounds of New York, from the cramped but somehow comforting streets of Brooklyn to the dazzling chaos of Coney Island as seen through a child’s eyes. Engel and Orkin extrapolate the universal from the personal in this Homeric story of a little boy’s heroic trek alone through the vastness of an urban amusement park.

At Turner Classic Movies, Bret Wood gives a full career profile of Morris Engel, from his photography apprenticeship with Paul Strand in the 1930s to his late career experiments with DV. In the middle he offers this quote by Film historian Foster Hirsch:

Truffaut said that without Little Fugitive we wouldn’t have had our French New Wave. We have to take that comment seriously. As a film historian I can say that LF was the first of its kind. It was really, truly the first American independent film. John Cassavetes and Shadows[1959] often get credit for that but that’s not true. It’s Little Fugitive, seven years before. It was the first American independent film that had worldwide screenings.”

Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin have their own respective websites, both maintained by their daughter Mary Engel.  Both archives are organized in similar fashion, featuring their photos, biographies and career highlights.

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  • Carlo says:

    It’s great that you’re streaming Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin’s films on this site, they need more recognition as the pioneers of American Independent Film, ditto Lionel Rogosin.

    There is a great article by Ray Carney on the beginnings of American Independent Film which can be read here: http://people.bu.edu/rcarney/indiemove/survey.shtml

    And this a great watch list of American Independent Cinema (in chronological order):

  • alsolikelife says:

    Great links, thanks. Surprised that I didn’t find that Carney article before, but I’m not surprised at all that he wrote something. Carney is the godfather of american indie film scholarship!

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