In the 1950s, long before independent films became fashionable alternatives to Hollywood productions, former news photographer Morris Engel pioneered the breed with features that made up in love, creativity, and enthusiasm what they lacked in money and fancy techniques. He shot them with a hand-held camera he designed himself and kept every aspect of the pictures under personal control.
All have slender stories, and the acting rarely has the powerful presence we associate with movie-star charisma. But catchy plots and showy performances are beside the point, since Engel's main priority is capturing the inimitable charm of authentic human behavior against a wide array of New York locations - affectionately filmed by artists who know the city's streets, buildings, and parks as intimately as their own living rooms.
Lending additional depth is Engel's steady concern for family values in the most genuine sense, portraying the realities of single-parenting without a shred of sensationalism or sentimentality. Equally impressive is his astonishing gift for coaxing brilliant acting out of the very young children who play key roles in his best pictures. Little Fugitive, the 1953 prizewinner that's rightly regarded as his masterpiece, follows the adventures of a seven-year-old boy wandering through Coney Island for two days after big kids play a nasty trick on him. Lovers and Lollipops (1955) shows a young man's up-and-down courtship of a widow and her little girl, and Weddings and Babies (1958) portrays the complex relationship between an ambitious photographer and a girlfriend (Viveca Lindfors) more eager for marriage than he is.
"Little Fugitive" and "Lovers and Lollipops" were co-directed by Engel's wife, the respected photojournalist Ruth Orkin, and on the former Ray Ashley also has a directing credit. All three pictures are brimming with wit and magic, and while all ages will enjoy them thoroughly, nobody who grew up in the '50s should even think of missing them. (Not rated; Kino Video)