Despite a relatively slim body of motion picture work, Morris Engel towers alongside the forefathers of American independent film. Debuting in 1953 with the classic Little Fugitive, he pioneered a vibrant, photojournalistic style celebrated as much for its low-budget realism as its uncommon humanity. Often working in collaboration with his wife, the famed photographer Ruth Orkin, Engel defined not only the rough-edged and deeply personal aesthetics of independent filmmaking but also the nuts-and-bolts blueprint, working with miniscule budgets and equally tiny crews to make movies far removed from the sanitized gloss of Hollywood. His efforts would ultimately impact not only successive generations of New York filmmakers including John Cassavetes and Martin Scorsese, but also the upstarts of the French nouvelle vague: No less than Francois Truffaut himself told the New Yorker, "Our New Wave would never have come into being if it hadn't been for the young American Morris Engel, who showed us the way to independent production with his fine movie, Little Fugitive."
Engel was born April 8, 1918, in Brooklyn, growing up poor in Williamsburg and Coney Island. His father died when he was three years old, leaving the youngster only a two dollar watch -- Engel later wrote it "was the symbolic essence of mystery and power of another world." His fascination with the watch and its mechanics soon shifted to the camera, and he began collecting photographs and assembling scrapbooks. While working as a bank clerk in 1935, Engel spotted an advertisement offering photography courses at the Photo League, a group founded on the belief that shooting pictures could serve as a catalyst for social change; among his teachers there was Berenice Abbott. As a member of the Photo League's Feature Group, Engel collaborated with Aaron Siskind on his much-discussed "Harlem Document" project; he was additionally invited to work with Paul Strand and Leo Hurwitz on their film, Native Land. Thanks to Strand, Engel also learned how to load a movie camera.
In 1939, Engel debuted his first one-man show at the New School for Social Research. In his introduction to the show, Strand wrote, "Here is a young man of 21 who sees people with compassionate understanding," and indeed, Engel's grim but humane imagery reveals great empathy for its urban subjects, evoked in haunting black-and-white. After working briefly as a photojournalist for the newspaper PM, between 1941 and 1945 Engel served as Chief Photographer's Mate in the U.S. Navy, and was a member of Combat Photo Unit 8 during the invasion of Normandy, receiving a citation from Captain Edward Steichen. Following World War II, he briefly returned to his job at PM before spending the remainder of the decade working for a series of national magazines including Ladies Home Journal, McCall's, Fortune, and Collier's. Engel also assisted friend Charlie Woodruff in constructing a 35-millimeter movie camera that did not require a tripod -- lightweight and handheld with the aid of a shoulder strap, it offered the cameraman both the portability and steadiness of a still camera while also affording the fluidity that was later the hallmark of the steadicam.
Perhaps most importantly, Woodruff's camera allowed Engel to shoot films cheaply, without benefit of a large technical crew. With Ray Ashley, a writer whom he first met on PM, he began to develop Little Fugitive, raising the 30,000 dollar-budget with the aid of friends; Engel discovered the film's star, seven-year-old Richie Andrusco, at Coney Island's Steeplechase Carousel, later noting the boy's "animal strength." The darkly comic story of a Brooklyn child who flees to Coney Island in the mistaken belief that he's shot and killed his older brother, Little Fugitive boasts a cinéma vérité grittiness remarkable both for its time and its family friendly content -- Engel photographed the picture himself, using Woodruff's camera to shoot unnoticed in teeming crowds and in spaces ranging from inside a baseball batting cage and a moving amusement park ride. Engel, Ashley, and Ruth Orkin are jointly credited with direction; Orkin also served as editor, and while making Little Fugitive, she and Engel married. The completed film won the Silver Lion for Best Direction at the 1953 Venice Film Festival, and also received an Academy Award nomination for Best Motion Picture Story. In 1997, it was inducted into the National Film Registry by the National Film Preservation Board.
Commercial and critical success did little to secure financing for a follow-up, however, and Engel and Orkin filmed 1955's sublime Lovers and Lollipops on the same shoestring budget of its predecessor. Another black-and-white New York City reverie spotlighting a child actor -- this time, young Cathy Dunn -- Lovers and Lollipops beautifully complements Little Fugitive, articulating a similar understanding for the wonderment and terror of children face in coming to terms with the world around them. Another technological breakthrough preceded Engel's third feature, 1958's Weddings and Babies: wrote documentarian Richard Leacock in Harper's, "Engel's earlier films had been dubbed -- that is, they had used a system perfected by the postwar Italian filmmakers of shooting a scene with a silent camera and then fitting dialogue to it in the studio...Weddings and Babies was not dubbed...Here was a feature theatrical film, shot on regular 35-mm stock, with live spontaneous sound...[it] is the first theatrical motion picture to make use of a fully mobile, synchronous sound-and-picture system." Starring Viveca Lindefors, Weddings and Babies -- in many respects Engel's most personal film in its portrayal of a restless commercial photographer -- shared the Critics Prize at the 1958 Venice Film Festival with Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries. But it was barely distributed, and Engel did not make another feature for a decade.
That film, 1968's I Need a Ride to California -- a portrait of the East Village hippie culture -- wasn't distributed at all, and Engel spent the next several decades working primarily as a still photographer and commercial producer while Orkin raised the couple's two children. Her health declined badly during the years to follow, and after a long battle with cancer, Orkin died on January 16, 1985. In 1993, Engel finally returned to filmmaking with A Little Bit Pregnant, the story of a pregnant teenager who refuses to marry or have an abortion, as seen from the perspective of her seven-year-old half-brother. Again, this film on videotape was not picked up for distribution. Five years later, Engel completed the digital video production Camellia, about the toddler daughter of a friend. In his later years, he also turned to sculpture and photographic panoramas of New York street scenes. Long withdrawn from distribution, Engel's early films finally resurfaced on video in the late 1990s; in May 2002, he was also the subject of a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.