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Most aspects of this short melodrama were made with skill. The acting
is generally quite good, the characters are interesting and believable,
and the plot is interesting even though a couple of details strain
credibility. It's probably one of the very earliest movies about gangs
or gangsters, and it portrays the "Musketeers" and their affairs in a
way that is more believable than any of the romanticized portrayals
that came into vogue later on.
The cast features some names well-known to silent film fans, with Dorothy Gish and many other familiar names. Even some of the small roles feature talented performers, so perhaps it is no surprise that the movie features a high standard of acting.
The story shows the interactions between the gang of "Musketeers" and some other persons who have the misfortune to live nearby. The story and the production make pretty good use of the possibilities, and aside from one or two overly convenient plot turns, they do so in a worthwhile way.
Quite a bit happens in just over 15 minutes, with constant action that is photographed and edited well enough that you largely forget that it was all done using the limited photographic options of its time. This is a good one to watch for anyone interested in very old films.
This prototypical gangster movie is justly one of the best-known of
Griffith's Biograph shorts, and may be his literal best. In it we see
the director at his most confident and his most precise, as well an
early opportunity to see Lillian Gish in a lead role.
The first half of the Musketeers of Pig Alley shows off some of Griffith's most finely crafted shot compositions. Working with several increasingly complex crowd scenes, he manages to keep each one unique, and continually draws our eyes to the most important part of the action, in spite of the degree of complexity. He daringly puts bits of business at the very edges of the frame a puff of smoke stylishly announces the arrival of Elmer Booth, and later the barman offers a backhander from off-screen. Griffith even works in a joke on his own sense of formal symmetry when, in one street scene Lillian meets her sister Dorothy coming the way. As the two women pass each other, they pause, throw each other a quick glance, then carry on.
In the second half, we see what is arguably the finest use of parallel editing in all of Griffith's Biograph career. As with shot composition, the action climax here is laced with symmetry. Rather than a nail-biting ride-to-the-rescue, this is a tense clash between two opposing forces. Griffith matches up shots of the two rivals gangs as they seek each other out, gradually building up the tension before releasing it in a lightning-fast gunfight. It looks incredibly simple, yet it's so effective. This is the ancestor of John Ford's Western shoot-outs, and Sergio Leone's Mexican standoffs.
The acting is top-notch throughout, and only a few sparse intertitles are used to help the plot along. Gish proves herself adept at the slow, subtle style that was by now the standard at Biograph. Elmer Booth, who had floated around Biograph for a number of years making little impression, at last hits his stride here with a role that is perfect for him. In one memorable close-up during the build up to the shoot-out, he acts brilliantly with his face, looking menacing but also conveying a hint of fear. He also gives a great comic turn in the final scene. Had he not died a few years later he could have been a kind of James Cagney of the silent era he has that same mean-faced gangster look.
If there is one weakness in The Musketeers of Pig Alley it is that Griffith sometimes actually seems to expect too much of his audience. There is a lot to take in, and some of the plot points are conveyed extremely subtly. Still, it has a terrific impact even on a first viewing, and remains one of the most ageless of all Griffith's pictures.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Even though the Biograph catalogue of 1912 described the story as not
particularly strong, this 17 minute film broke new ground in it's
depiction of New York street toughs and cinematic techniques.
The Snapper Kid was a new type of gangster and the viewer entered his world with no moralizing, the visuals were not pictorial dreams harking back to a less complicated time but a world of immigrants, beggars, street kids and secretive, inscrutable faces. Elmer Booth was a stage actor but he bought "the kid" vividly to life and with a cigarette dangling from his lips, his hat at a raffish angle and a confidant swagger he burst into the Dicken's like world of the struggling young couple. "The Little Lady" (Lillian Gish) and her husband "the Musician" (Walter Miller) are straight out of "Little Dorrit" or "Bleak House". Griffith, who came to prominence with his airy, outdoor panoramas, now took his cameraman, Billy Bitzer, to New York's teeming East Side. When Gish walks along a crowded street, reality floods in, people look openly at the camera and the scene teems with life as a riot of types fill the screen.
There is a dance hall scene, but again no moralizing or lectures. The current fear of white slavery was raised as a man in a straw hat, later found to be a rival gang member, spikes the heroine's lemonade with suspicious powders!! But just what was the sweet innocent doing at a gangster's ball!! Her husband was robbed of his savings and had determinedly gone to track it down, in the interim the elderly mother had died so a girlfriend of the "little lady" encouraged her to go to the dance with her (you can also see those AB logos on the wall, it was all to do with making sure the films weren't stolen or copied). She is saved by the quick thinking kid, which then paves the way for a gangster shoot out on the mean streets of the New York slums. The titles refer to a mysterious Mr. Big, the showdown begins with the hoodlums inching themselves along the wall to a startling camera close up until the Snapper's face half fills the screen, his side kick (Harry Carey), who tries to ape the kid's mannerisms, just behind him. The screen is filled with smoke as bodies contort and fall. I had to keep reminding myself that this film is 102 years old!!!
The Snapper is on the run but the "little lady" remembering his kindness in the dance hall and with the title "one good turn deserves another" gives him an alibi when the smiling policeman calls. Elmer Booth is a revelation. I noticed that he died in 1915 - what a talent was lost!! The swaggering, cocky confidence he put into his characterization - don't tell me Cagney didn't see this movie when he was perfecting his Tom Powers. His gestures at the end plainly indicate to Lillian "You prefer the musician to me - I can't believe it"!!!
Probably the most daring scene is at the very end, a title comes on "Links in the Chain" and a hand passes money to the still smiling policeman. While "The Musketeers of Pig Alley" was being filmed, a gambler had been killed in what was obviously a hired hit by Charles Becker, a police lieutenant who had made his wealth by collecting graft from gambling, prostitution and protection - now the public was able to read about city corruption, the Five Points Gang and the Black Hand wars and skirmishes that were caused by infringements on each other's territories. The movie was definitely plucked from the headlines!!
If you have ever wondered where Jimmy Cagney got some of his
mannerisms, watch this film.
Elmer Booth and Harry Carey, early in the movie, portray two New York gangsters so much in the same way Cagney would 20 years later that you almost don't need any other reason to watch "Musketeers."
Watch Carey, playing an un-named character, hitch up his pants. Just great!
This is available in a poor print at YouTube, but watching it there -- or trying to -- will either irritate you or, I hope, drive you to find a good copy to own.
I saw this many years ago in a Griffith retrospective in Los Angeles, and have been in awe of it ever since.
Like so much Mr. Griffith did, it just set the standard for great film-making.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Often credited as being the first gangster movie, The Musketeers of Pig Alley certainly is groundbreaking in that respect. It's about a poor young married couple who move into a cheap tenant, where they are constantly harassed by mobsters. When the husband loses his pocket watch, and a shootout occurs later, he seizes the opportunity to find it. And that's really about it. It's short, but it's exciting and it works pretty well as a film. You don't really get a whole lot of screen time from the gangsters themselves, because the story is told from the point of view of the poor residents, but I would say it's sufficient. The acting is good, and the story flows along pretty well. If you're into early films like I am, than I highly suggest you take a look at this one.
In what may be the first mob film DW Griffith establishes some of the
genre nuances that remain staples to this day. The Musketeers of Pig
Alley is a tense action filled study in nostalge de la boule, father of
The Roaring Twenties grandfather of Mean Streets.
A struggling musician on New York's Lower East Side goes on tour and and a local thug tries moving in on wife who in return rebuffs him. He robs the husband upon return but also gets her out of a jam at great cost. In the interim a gang war breaks out.
Musketeers presents inner city life in graphic terms of overcrowding and squalor. Griffith does a fine job of balancing the two major story lines that intersect and further helped along by the innocent beauty of Lillian Gish and charismatic evil of Elmer Booth for casting Cagney. There's a well done suspense building montage into a gunfight (including a jarring close-up of Booth) along with a series of other moments that must have given pause to the folks out in the country to visit the Big Apple. Pig Alley is an an American pioneer.
Musketeers of Pig Alley, The (1912)
*** (out of 4)
D.W. Griffith film, which is considered to be the first gangster movie ever made. Griffith does a nice job showing off poor people back in the day and seeing NYC in 1912 is another added bonus. The performance by Dorothy Gish is very good and the supporting players are nice as well. The shootout in the alley remains exciting to this day.
Highly entertaining early film.
Also check out Regeneration (1915).
This is available through Kino, Image and Grapevine.
Early crime film directed by D.W. Griffith. Hyped in the subtitle as
"Unparallel drama inspired and played on the streets of the American
city - Bold - Truthful"! Lillian Gish lives with her musician husband
Walter Miller near Pig Alley, an area frequented by gangsters. The head
Musketeer is Elmer Booth. Gangster Booth tries to put the make on Ms.
Gish, and mugs Mr. Miller as he returns home with his hard-earned pay.
Stumbling into a gang shootout, Miller recognizes Musketeer Booth as
his mugger. What will he do?
Here, in "The Musketeers of Pig Alley", Gish and Miller are better than when they are threatened by the temptress in "The Mothering Heart" (1913). The acting is more natural, and you really sympathize with the couple. Booth is an endearing "Little Caesar". The shootout is lively, and the thugs creeping along the alley walls into close-ups is quite memorable. The ending is played more for humor; it's not bad, but it breaks the mood of the movie.
****** The Musketeers of Pig Alley (10/31/12) D.W. Griffith ~ Lillian Gish, Walter Miller, Elmer Booth
I'm not going to go into the story because, in the IMDb plot summary, there is a thorough explanation of this tale provided by "American Mindscope and Biograph Co." It covers everything in this short, silent D.W. Griffth movie. I hadn't a silent film in a while, at least since watching most of Buster Keaton's and Harold Lloyd's comedies, so I had forgotten what a pretty woman Lillian Gish was in her youth. What confuses me, though, is that younger sister Dorothy is listed in the opening credits, not Lillian. What's the deal with that? Since Dorothy would have been about 14 at this time, it had to be Lillian in the lead role, as listed here by IMDb. At any rate, Lillian and the faces of the gangsters are really fun to watch. We get closeups of "The Snapper" and his really wild-looking sidekick, played by Harry Carey. Famous actor Lionel Barrymore also has a short role in year but, frankly, I didn't recognize him. By the way, I think Dorothy was one of the people in the crowd early on her brushes up against her sister, who then gives her a look. It was almost like an inside joke. Overall, this a bit confusing in parts because things happened pretty fast. I enjoyed the faces in here more than the story. A gave it a second look, trying to spot Dorothy and to understand the plot better. Afterward, however, I found this IMDb summary to be most helpful.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"The Musketeers of Pig Alley" is an 18-minute black-and-white silent short movie written and directed by D.W. Griffith, a truly prolific filmmaker who is considered the best dramatic filmmaker of his era. Still I must say I did not enjoy this film as much as I hoped I would and I have seen better works from the director. The only aspect that convinced me here was the display of crime back in that era. The love story and everything else surrounding the main character was not too great in my opinion. Maybe my perception was hurt by the fact that I am not familiar with any of the actors in here except the stunning Lillian Gish. Anyway, all in all only a mediocre film, also for its time. Not recommended and the happy ending seems a bit forced as well.
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