When films from every era are increasingly accessible, it’s easy to perceive cinema in the deathless present, as a corpus that exists all at once, simultaneously on a menu, like historical ages to a time traveler. In some senses it’s true – for the real movieheads, “new” and “old” are hardly factors that contribute to our ideas of “masterpiece” or “crap,” and the great films of the ‘20s and ‘30s can and do stand beside new movies and often darken them with their shadows. But it’s a stance that can ignore the torque and meaning of history itself – the importance of a film belonging to a bygone year, expressing that day and age as only a movie can. Every movie about remembrance of lives and moments that once stood before us but are now long gone, and an awareness not just of past things, but their “pastness,” should be as crucial to us as the rush of the present-day blockbuster (which will in turn become a captured yesterday soon enough).
Thus, we should take the time and clear any weeds that may have grown over the three modest features of Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin – Little Fugitive (1953), Lovers and Lollipops (1955) and Weddings and Babies (1958) – partly for their significance as pioneer visions, if not for the inescapable capacity the films have to bestow a sense of having lived something genuine, not merely “watched.” They are such modest, unassuming visitations with real life that it’d be easy to ignore the passage they opened for cineastes thereafter. Before Little Fugitive, independent movies were barnstorming exploitation flicks or Poverty Row riffs, sold to grindhouses and filling the bottom half of the lowliest double bills. Movies had novel-like stories to run through in three acts, and their protagonists were possessed by action and desire; they didn’t kill time watching street life, wander through Coney Island without a destination, ponder the sunshine through a dirty window. Noirs began embracing what cinematographers began calling a “street style” come the ‘50s, but only Engel/Orkin made it happen documentary-style, with only a wind-up camera (shooting without sound) and the cluttered boroughs of New York. From there, we got the organic pro-am genuineness of John Cassavetes and the French New Wave (Francois Truffaut was famously a big Little Fugitive devotee.)
Little Fugitive is a palm-sized story (Brooklyn seven-year-old thinks he killed his bullyish brother, and, panicking, escapes alone to Coney Island), slogged a touch by post-dubbing and decidedly non-pro performances, and yet it feels like an epiphany, like movies after decades of festooned artifice just discovered the wonder and rue of watching a real boy do the things real boys do. Freckly, gimlet-eyed, Little Rascals-like Richie Andrusco is just an everyday kid, with no special relationship with the camera or acting chops, and yet that is precisely what sucks us in – maybe for the first time in American movies, we’re watching a child behaving in ways we once behaved and barely recall. Little Fugitive plays like a memory, a photo album come to life, a silvery chunk of your own life captured in nitrate. A no-brainer selection for the National Film Registry, the film is cinema-as-history incarnate.
The Coney Island around Andrusco is its own kind of transcendence, a place and time captured forever as indelibly as Robert Flaherty’s Arctic Circle in Nanook of the North and Jean-Luc Godard’s Champs-Elysses in Breathless; like those cinematic landmarks, we should be careful of underestimating the richness of life details contained in these time capsules. Likewise, Lovers and Lollipops (yes, Engel and Orkin needed help with these titles) dawdles over little Cathy Dunnplaying a fatherless girl whose lonesome mom (Lori March) hooks up with a new, awkward boyfriend (Gerald O’Loughlin). Here the mid-century textures of Manhattan, from Central Park to the Statue of Liberty, are captured as innocently as they might be by the optic muscles of a little girl, and the film’s guileless, table-high simplicity and amateurish fabric plug you directly into the queasy emotional state of an uneasy grade-schooler like few others.
Weddings and Babies, the only Engel film to be made with synch-sound and without Orkin, is a disarmingly intimate idyll with a New York working couple locked quietly in a state of battle. As before, things go unsaid as life meanders around in idle moments and daylight comes through the narrow-avenue windows like a beautiful song on a scratchy record. The performances are Engel’s best (Viveca Lindfors, coming to Engel’s budget-free mode after ten years in Hollywood, delivers one of the most believable performances of the decade), but as always what grips you is the warm-hearted attention to actuality. It’s as far as you can imagine from Hollywood’s contrived and glamorized version of America that, over the decades to generations of filmgoers, implicitly suggested that ordinary life and genuine people are somehow not worthy of the camera’s attention.
The most famous of the three, Little Fugitive won big at the Venice Film Festival, got nominated for a screenplay Oscar (for a largely improvised film), and played in over 5,000 U.S. theaters; its natural charm seems, on the whole and across decades, to have been always as irresistible as it still is today. But all three movies, crafted with a minimum of attitude and pretension, are ballads sung to fractured families and their children, to a photographer’s relationship with natural light (Orkin and Engel were both career magazine photogs), and to New York’s neighborhoods in a day of thick and busy street life that has since vanished like prairie settlements. Despite the films’ modest success, the couple surrendered to the difficulty of indie film production; Engel did make a final film, I Need a Ride to California (1968), but it remains unseen. Perhaps they sensed that their moment, the postwar urban moment that needed to be frozen as a collective memory, had passed, they’d filmed it, and it would be forever ours.
Michael Atkinson is a film critic and author of two critic and author of The Hemingway Mysteries: Hemingway Deadlights and Hemingway Cutthroat.
Acknowledgment: Images were found at the Morris Engel Archive.