Directed By: D.W. Griffith
Starring: Elmer Booth, Lillian Gish, Clara T. Bracy
Tag line: "One good turn deserves another"
Trivia: This film heavily influenced Martin Scorsese in the making of his own gangster films, Goodfellas and Gangs of New York
With films like the controversial Birth of a Nation and the epic Intolerance, D. W. Griffith introduced feature-length motion pictures to U.S. audiences, who, prior to that time, were used to watching movies that ran no longer than 20 or 30 minutes. For years, Griffith himself directed hundreds of short films for Biograph, which helped him sharpen his skills as a cinematic artist. Utilizing such now-common techniques as cross-cutting, close-ups, and long shots, Griffith turned out a number of highly-regarded shorts between 1908 and 1914, including the socially conscious A Corner in Wheat; the action-packed western The Battle at Elderbush Gulch; and what is considered the very first gangster movie ever made, 1912’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley.
Starring Elmer Booth and Lillian Gish, The Musketeers of Pig Alley packs plenty of drama and excitement into just 17 minutes. A musician (Walter Miller) and his devoted girlfriend (Gish) live in a bad section of New York City, an area controlled by street gangs. Chief among them are the "Musketeers", led by a young hoodlum known as the Snapper Kid (Booth). One day, the musician, whose job requires him to spend a great deal of time away from home, returns with a wallet full of money, only to be mugged by the Snapper Kid, who steals every last cent. Later that night, the musician’s girlfriend, trying to forget her troubles, stops by a local dance hall, where a well-dressed gangster (Alfred Paget) attempts to drug her. Fortunately, the Snapper Kid steps in to save the girl, and in so doing, sparks a violent gang war.
Portions of The Musketeers of Pig Alley were shot on-location in New York City, bringing a sense of realism to the story (it’s reported Griffith even used actual gang members as extras). As for the movie’s most memorable sequence, it’s undoubtedly the shootout between the two gangs that happens towards the end of the film. The gunfight itself is chaotic, but just prior to it, Griffith manages to generate tension by way of a well-conceived close-up, where the camera, which remains perfectly still, watches as the Snapper Kid and his gang quietly sneak forward, trying to get the jump on their rivals. The entire scene plays out slowly, building suspense as we await the bloodshed that’s sure to follow.
The Musketeers of Pig Alley is but one of many classic shorts D.W. Griffith directed for Biograph, and if you’re a fan of silent movies, or interested in learning more about the history of the cinema, then I suggest you check out some of these films (aside from those I mentioned above, I would also recommend 1908’s The Adventures of Dollie, Griffith’s first directorial effort). They show a master at the earliest stage of his career, and, despite being a century old, still manage to entertain.