The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912)

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*. The first gangster movie. The beginning of a long love affair.
*. And right away you feel the conflict. Because the Snapper Kid is not a good guy, is he? But at the end of the movie there’s darling Lilian Gish as the Little Lady lying to the police just to save his murdering, thieving ass. Yes, he did rescue her from being drugged (and presumably worse), but he also mugged her brother in brutal fashion. What about that?
*. But then hypergamy is very much part of the gangster ethos. The bad guy always wants the good girl. As Tony Montana puts it: “you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, you get the women.”
*. So are we meant to like the Snapper Kid? We can’t say he’s redeemed at the end because he clearly isn’t. (Nor is he brought to justice. We’re way pre-Code here.) The label of “Musketeer” might not be entirely ironic. Perhaps, like most gangster heroes, he’s just a guy who’s the best of a bad bunch, someone corrupted by his environment but who nevertheless manages to rise above it, at least to some extent.
*. Aside from being the first gangster movie, it’s probably best known today for being the first film to use “follow focus.” This is so established a film technique now that it’s something a contemporary eye will scarcely notice.
*. Necessity was again the mother of invention. Griffith’s innovations in editing came about, I believe, to facilitate the presentation of chase scenes. Follow focus is born in an alley, a long and narrow set that required some decision to be made on how to handle the issue of depth.

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*. My favourite part is watching the Snapper Kid slide toward us down the length of the alley wall. The Kid and that wall have a thing going on in this movie. He’s always just coming out of it or hiding behind it or leaning against it.
*. The smoke of battle in the big gunfight scene is great because it’s both realistic and it adds a sense of chaos and mystery. We don’t see people dying in exaggerated, dramatic ways, but only the bodies lying on the ground when the smoke clears. It feels a bit like a magic trick, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Griffith had something like that in mind.

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