In Remembrance: Morris Engel

     Morris Engel, who helped pioneer the independent film movement with his 1953 film Little Fugitive, has passed away in New York City on Saturday, March 5, 2005. He was 86.

     Born April 8, 1918 in Brooklyn, New York, Engel learned photography through courses at the Photo League. He had his first exhibition in 1939 at the New School for Social Research. After a brief stint at the newspaper PM, he entered the Navy as a combat photographer, where he covered the invasion of Normandy. After the war, he worked as a photojournalist for a variety of publications, including Fortune, Collier’s and McCall’s.

     Engel shot Little Fugitive, the story of a seven-year old Brooklyn boy (Richie Andrusco) who runs away to Cooney Island after mistakenly believing he’s killed his brother, with a budget of just $30,000.00 and a special lightweight 35 millimeter camera he developed with friend Charlie Woodruff. The camera was small enough to be carried by a single shoulder strap, allowing Engel to shoot unobtrusively in crowds and even on a Cooney Island Amusement ride. The small, intimate film, with its naturalistic view of New York City and its residents, the film was an international success. It won the Silver Lion award at the 1953 Venice Film Festival. The film’s script, co-authored by Engel, his future wife, Ruth Orkin, and friend and former PM colleague Ray Ashley was nominated for an Academy Award.

     The film influenced such directors as John Cassavetes and Francois Truffaut, who both admit to having been being inspired to take up cameras and shoot their own films by Little Fugitive. Cassavetes 1959 partly improvised drama Shadows was made on location in Manhattan for $40,000.00. Truffaut’s classic The 400 Blows, which credited with launching the French New Wave movement, owes much to the production techniques that Engel developed while shooting Little Fugitive. In an interview for New Yorker magazine, Truffaut acknowledged that without Engel’s film the French New Wave may have never been.

     Engel would direct only a few more films. Lovers And Lollipops (1956), the story of a young girl whose mother remarries, and Weddings And Babies (1958), an autobiographical story about a photographer whose fiancée longs for a life of quiet domesticity, did not meet the same level of success as his first film did. After a brief return to commercial photography, Engel began work on a feature about East Village hippies in 1968 called I Need A Ride To California, but the film was never completed.