Griffith’s Biograph shorts from 1908-1913 show the remarkable odyssey from an initially reluctant film-maker to an accomplished master of the form. They also formed a sort of apprenticeship as the artist prepared himself to make the great blockbusters that were to come, particularly The Birth of a Nation, Broken Blossoms, Way Down East, and Orphans of the Storm.
The Musketeers of Pig Alley is an especially memorable film from Griffith’s Biograph period. It is a story that is “hot off the press,” since gang wars had dominated the New York papers at the time. It presages many films to follow in its sympathetic portrayal of a gangster anti-hero. The leader of the Musketeers gains our respect for rescuing the innocent young wife, played by Lillian Gish, from the clutches of a rival gang-leader who is intent on drugging her for nefarious purposes. And yet, this same semi-good gangster konks the young wife’s husband on the head and steals his wallet. The movie is way ahead of Pulp Fiction in its wry take on the unwritten codes ruling the underworld. After the action is completed, the punchline to the story has the momentarily victorious gangster taking money proffered to him from off-screen by a mysterious hand. I’ve read analyses on-line that don’t seem too sure of what that means within the film, but it is clearly protection money from the local bartender, offered (perhaps) after he saw which rival gang was going to win the gang war.
The best scene in Pig Alley has the “bad” gangsters, led by the one who tried to drug Lillan Gish, in preparation for the climactic gun battle, taking up positions in the alley behind brick walls, crates, and barrels. When the “good” gang sneaks into the alley, a furious gun battle ensues. The resultant carnage appears from the clearing smoke, the police rush in, and the anti-hero flees to finish out the film. It is perfectly choreographed, an early example of how movie magic can turn events into something epic.