Meet the First No-Budge, Pre-New Wave Ultra Indie New Yawk Moviemakers

The Little Cinema of Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin

Movies are two types of time, both past and present. Cinema from all eras exists at once, available to us right now like moments in history to a time traveler, while at the same time what we see is gone. The medium remains a kind of plastic memory, a shadowy remnant of human lives and social realities that are long vanished — except they’re still here, ghosts in the machine made up in equal parts of light and feeling. History becomes part of their DNA, part of what a movie is and what it means.

It’s a crucial way to think about the medium, especially films that took a realistic approach, and used the real world as it was at the time. You can hardly avoid it when you look at the three 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 of reality, and 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, bask in the rough textures of neighborhoods just because they’re 100% real. 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.

Without Little Fugitive, there likely would not have been a true pro-am French New Wave (Francois Truffaut was famously a big Little Fugitive devotee.), and nor a John Cassavetes, and therefore, perhaps, no natural-lighting-real-people new wave global movement at large, from Hungary to Chile to sub-Saharan Africa to, finally, Hollywood itself, with the ‘60s-’70s American New Wave.

Engel, working with his photographer-editor wife Orkin at every stage of production, had a crafty and expressive eye, but the films feel as natural, as spontaneous, as daylight through an old apartment-house window. Little Fugitive is a palm-sized story (a Brooklyn seven-year-old thinks he killed his bullyish brother, and, panicking, escapes alone to Coney Island) slogged by post-dubbing and stiffly amateurish performances, and yet it’s a miracle; it’s as if no one had ever photographed a real child doing authentic childish things before. Freckly, beady-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 natural 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 Flaherty’s Arctic Circle in Nanook of the North (1920) and Godard’s Champs-Elysees in Breathless (1960); with all of the above, 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 Dunn playing 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 watchful gaze 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’s credited help, 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 natural light catches the air 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. For Engel, that’s all there was.

Of course, what you’re also seeing in the Engel-Orkin films is the mid-century prototype of today’s scrappy, no-budget, do-it-anyway-you-can indie filmmaker, only with much more cumbersome and expensive technology. In their case, as with many films and filmmakers since, poverty can emerge as something of an advantage — the lack of polish, the necessity of spontaneity, the beauty of natural light, the unpredictability of the outside world, all of it delivers a sense of immediacy and truthfulness that can’t be faked. Shooting a film can be an extraordinarily contrived and artificial process, but striving to make the result look like a beautiful accident, something real that just happened, can make a film feel like a revelation.

Engel and Orkin weren’t entirely ignored — 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.

Still, despite the films’ modest success, the couple surrendered to the difficulty of indie film production, and pressed on shooting for magazines. Engel did make a final film, I Need a Ride to California (1968), which remains unseen, and then some video work in the ’90s, after Orkin’s death in 1985. 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, like a vanishing wilderness, so it would be forever ours.

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All three Morris/Orkin films are available to stream on Amazon Prime, and on DVD and Blu-ray from Kino Classics.

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Smashcut students are assigned weekly feature films that illustrate and exemplify filmmaking concepts linked to that week’s lesson. This week, students are learning about “Realism” and “Actors: Faces, Eyes, Bodies & Gesture,” and watching Dog Day Afternoon and Easy Rider.

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