Pioneering independent filmmaker Morris Engel, died March 5 of cancer in New York. He was 86.
Engel’s 1953 film, “The Little Fugitive” established a model for filmmaking that influenced directors like John Cassavetes and François Truffaut. The story of a 7-year-old Brooklyn boy who mistakenly believes he has killed his older brother and runs away to hide at Coney Island, it was made on a budget of $30,000 using a lightweight 35mm camera that he developed with a friend, Charlie Woodruff.
The film won the Silver Lion at the 1953 Venice Film Festival, and its story was nominated for an Academy Award in 1954.
The movie’s success encouraged other young filmmakers to circumvent the Hollywood system and finance their own personal films. Truffaut drew on Engel’s childhood themes and production techniques to create “The 400 Blows,” the film that introduced the French New Wave.
Born in Brooklyn, Engel took photo courses with teachers including Berenice Abbott, then became a photojournalist. With his wife, Ruth Orkin, he made two more independent features: “Lovers and Lollipops” and “Weddings and Babies.” He returned to his work as a commercial photographer and did not make another feature until “I Need a Ride to California” in 1968, a drama about East Village hippies that remains unreleased. Later in life, he worked on video documentaries, including “A Little Bit Pregnant” (1993) and “Camelias” (1998).
He is survived by a son, a daughter, two sisters and a grandson.