Thursday, April 9, 2009

Learning new things

I'm not a film historian, or even particularly expert when it comes to classic cinema; I'm just a fan. As a result, there are times when I learn something new about the movies. Last night on TCM was one such time, as I had barely even heard of the name Morris Engel. His 1953 independent movie Little Fugitive kicked off the night, and is well worth at least one viewing.

The plot is fairly simple: an older brother has to look after his kid brother, and doesn't particularly like doing it. Together with his two friends, he springs a joke on his kid brother: play dead, and make his kid brother think he actually shot the older brother. Unfortunately, this didn't have quite the effect that the older brother had in mind. The younger brother thinks he's going to be punished by the police, and so runs away to Coney Island until the heat is off. Naturally, the older brother gets quite worried when he discovers that his younger brother has gone missing....

Little Fugitive is a fascinating film for a whole host of reasons. It's told in a cinéma vérité style. Engel, who was a still photographer by trade, used a 35-millimeter camera that he could strap around his body, making it possible to have a cameraman who was much more unobtrusive, enabling a much different feel than one would get from normal Hollywood movies. Also, the actors used were not professionals, and had a much more naturalistic approach to moviemaking. Even though these are fictional characters, they're much more believable as a real family than Judge Hardy and his brood. Engel's photographic techniques are combined with a use of the real Coney Island, as it existed in the early 1950s, and is a far cry from the obviously stagebound Coney Island of a movie like The Devil and Miss Jones. It's both interesting and a bit bittersweet, in that a lot of the places presented in such movies don't exist any more.

Although Little Fugitive is a worthy movie, it does have a few flaws, mostly in that the pacing seems a bit off. There are a few sequences, especially those involving the little kid's picking up bottles to get the deposit money, that go on longer than they really should. Also, there are one or two plot points that seem unrealistic. But give the movie a chance. It does seem to be available on DVD, but currently only in a box set with Engel's other movies, meaning you'll have to pay a bit higher price.

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