Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912)

This is one of Griffith’s most famous Biograph shorts, and it is generally acknowledged to be the first "gangster film," thus setting off one of the major genres in American (and world) cinema. Perhaps more important than the criminal characterizations is the rough, threatening world of the modern urban environment. Here, in "The Other Part of New York," we are first given witness to the dangerous world of the crowded city streets - a place where criminals prowl and an underground economy functions. Some have argued that The Musketeers of Pig Alley is the first film noir. I cannot go that far. That post-World War II genre has many more elements than are on display here, but there is no question that the film is ground-breaking, and no doubt influential, in the what will be the subsequent development of one of cinema’s most poetically fecund streams.

Indeed, it is the look and feel of Musketeers that gives the film its most unique character. We recognize immediately the feel of the "mean streets" that the ne’er-do-well characters inhabit. Though set in the daytime, the characters move in a world of shadows, and Griffith brilliantly enhances their bug-like sneakiness by having his criminal characters move slowly, hugging walls, always on the alert, always on the prowl.

The streets of The Musketeers of Pig Alley will become part and parcel of the American dreamscape over the coming century. The film is important because it lays down so many of the earliest conventions that will define a great part of the mythic landscape of America.

Griffith must be given great credit for this remarkable one-reeler, since it is so stylishly done, so smoothly established - and it is quite different in look and feel from so many of his other films. His instinct (if not his intellect - which is probably more accurate) told him that he needed to adjust the style to the subject matter, and this he certainly did, most skillfully. It is for visions such as this that we regard film makers as more than just craftsmen, but as artists.

One great decision, and a hallmark of cinema that further distances itself from theatrical drama, is the fact that Musketeers was shot on actual New York locations. The verisimilitude that the actual urban landscape provides is a kind of alchemy - it molds an environment to the demands of a work of art. It is this recognition of possibility that will help transform cinema into a completely distinctive artistic field - for which it is already well on its way by 1912, thanks in no small part to Griffith himself.

The environments, the shadows, the movements of the characters are all here, freshly discovered, and beginning here they will become encoded into a kind of iconography that will resonate with audiences down to the present day. Indeed, Martin Scorsese reportedly studied The Musketeers of Pig Alley extensively in planning the shooting of his own 21st century crime epic, Gangs of New York. No doubt he wished to see the look of lower Manhattan as close to the time of his tale as he could. But he could have discovered the precedents he sought in the countless thousands of films that Musketeers has inspired and emulated.

Another remarkable aspect of The Musketeers of Pig Alley is the acting, which is stylized - as is in almost all films of the period - but at the same time prescient in its depiction of the kinds of characters that we will see throughout the next century. Indeed, perhaps the most striking thing about the film is the performance of Elmer Booth as the haughty gang leader, Snapper Kid. We watch Booth’s sassy, street-wise character in astonishment, recognizing right there the living prototype for such future screen wiseguys as James Cagney. As a matter of fact, one must wonder whether the young Cagney studied Booth’s performance before his bravura, star-making turn in The Public Enemy (1931). One would be foolish to dismiss Cagney’s acting innovations and natural charisma, but to cite that there is a definite precedent here is to ask some very interesting questions.

If Cagney did not emulate Booth’s performance, just what is it about the milieu of the "mean streets" that lends such a such a manic, slightly unhinged swagger to the playing of such an urban character? This style will thrive and survive, from Paul Muni down to Robert DeNiro. Is its genesis really here, in Booth’s performance? Or is the reality the actual characters the film makers and actors actually observed on the streets of New York? Do these gangsters and hoods actually have their own kind of "dance" that carries them through the squalor of their lives, lending them the illusion of power and the reality of personality?

Whatever its source and genesis, Elmer Booth’s performance is a masterpiece here. Unfortunately, Booth is little known and his acting career was untimely cut short by his death in an automobile accident three years later. Had he survived, perhaps even made it as a Hollywood star into the 1920s, we might have a much different history - and perspective - of this type of acting phenomenon than we do today.

All the small parts in Musketeers are superb, though - at least on the gangster side of the fence. The marvelous Lilian Gish co-stars (along with the cheery faced young Walter Miller as her musician husband), but here in this setting, even she is overshadowed not only by Booth’s Snapper Kid, but many of the other heavies’ roles that serve as quite minor characters in the narrative.

Especially outstanding is the brooding Harry Carey, who as Snapper’s sidekick, forms a dour counterpart to his more animated companion. Carey just looks plain dangerous, if not crazy - he is silent trouble waiting to happen. His eyes and scowl simply mean menace, and in an eerily creepy, patient way. In one scene, as he moves along silently behind Snapper, he can be seen calmly flipping a coin - a code for waiting danger - a full 20 years before George Raft would repeat the trick so famously in Scarface.

Of quite a different cut is the menacing brow of the rival gang leader, played with both flirtatious flair and stoic ferocity of Alfred Paget (the ship captain in The Lesser Evil). Adding even more color and weight to the ensemble is the unknown (to me) actor portraying the "Big Boss" - a menacing power proved potent by his tuxedo, as well as his ability to stop a fight just by showing his face. The hierarchy in the gang structure is established quickly and easily, even if their business is not, and these characters will long inhabit the screen, projecting their differences, as well as their power.

What The Musketeers of Pig Alley does not have, however, is much of a plot. This, really, is not too much of a flaw, since the film is all about character, environment, movement and light. It begins in the tiny apartment of the young couple - Gish and Miller, looking altogether healthy, wholesome and pathetic. Miller is a poor musician who must travel somewhere to make a little money. Also a resident in this little room is Gish’s old, ailing mother, who lives in a chair in a corner just long enough to die onscreen. (Griffith’s attempt at added pathos here simply results in a relief that she is out of the way, and the picture can continue.)

When Gish (identified solely as "The Little Lady") exits the house on an errand, she immediately becomes the prey of the bold flirtations of Flapper Kid. Even here, though, Snapper appears more playful than menacing. As he attempts a little peck on the cheek, Gish slaps him away, sending him into a momentary rage of apoplexy, a murderous shock of unexpected affrontment that must be physically restrained by Harry Carey. He quickly regains his composure, however, responding to the rough rebuff by a fascinated, perhaps admiring glare at Gish as she stomps away out of the frame. Snapper’s not used to assertive women like this, and he tips back his hat, scratching his head.

A crowded sidewalk scene gives the viewer the sense of populous claustrophobia in the big city, an immediate environmental argument for the behavior of such souls lost in the big shuffle of life. Gish moves testily through the crowd. Griffith cuts back to Snapper, now all grins, indicating that she’s "his kind of dame," then cockily pushes his hat down over his brow, and with hand in sleeves, jauntily pursues her. His partner, Harry Carey, merely looks on impassively like a mute monster of doom, then hikes up his trousers to follow his leader.

The crowd theme grows massive as we finally are introduced to Pig Alley itself. The place is nothing less than that - an alleyway, and small at that. Here, dozens, perhaps a hundred denizens of the city gather to socialize, drink, revel and romance. It is as if the entire neighborhood is here, including children, sitting in the foreground. In the hapless, overcrowded world of the city’s underclass, it is only an alley that allows any flourishment or commerce of life.

Snapper and his pals sneak in like rats, converging in the foreground. Everyone is smoking cigarettes, something we have not seen much in films before. It quickly establishes the habit as class related, subliminally associating it with vice and the coolness of street-class urbanity.

As the musician returns home with his pay, he is followed by Snapper and companion, then quickly waylaid - beaten and robbed - just outside his door.As the poor sap goes back out on the street looking for his money, wifey Gish is visited by a ridiculously ebullient girlfriend (Madge Kirby, the Little Sister of The Painted Lady) arrives determined to take her moping friend out on the town with her.

The two young ladies leave, arriving at "The Mobster’s Ball," a crowded, jumping drinking and dancing hall watched over by the "Big Boss." Snapper and Carey arrive, snaking their way around the scene. Two well-dressed young men recognize Snapper and immediately hop up to give the gangsters their seats. The ladies arrive, and the gregarious friend introduces a recalcitrant Gish around, before quickly joining in the festivities on the dance floor.

Snapper and Carey watch as Gish is approached by the rival, Paget, who asks Gish to dance. Snapper hops up, but is restrained by the more cautious Carey. Gish declines the offer, but does join Paget as he escorts her into an adjoining room for a drink. Snapper rises and slowly stalks after them. Slowly appearing behind the couple, now sitting at a table chatting over drinks, Snapper suddenly explodes. The quick movement from stillness into violent action is electrifying - Snapper quickly grabs the glass from Gish’s hand and smashes it, then turns to strike his rival across the face, an angry sneer spread across his mug.

The two gangsters are quickly separated by the "Big Boss" who tells them both to take it outside. Gish leaves first. Snapper stares his rival down and cooly issues his threat with a pointed finger in the chest. He exits the room slowly, then picks up with Carey back in the dance hall. They turn to exit, but are quickly faced by Paget and one of his lackeys - each gangster staring the other down while the "Big Boss" stands imperiously in between them, his very presence preventing any more shenanigans on the premises.

Snapper gives a sly smile and exits with Carey. Paget, his eyes all menace, returns to the bar. The crisis of the story has reached its peak - the rest of the film will be the suspenseful buildup of the showdown between the two criminals.

Griffith next begins to set up parallel story lines of the two gangs slowly stalking about the streets, each looking for the other. Jump cuts to sequences of shots of roughly equal time set up the situation and build tension. It is a particularly effective device, and one that while natural to this type of story, could easily be applied to other genres. (One immediately thinks of westerns, where two gunslingers could be stalking about the same town, both in search of a showdown.)

Snapper thrusts his hand forward in his jacket pocket - the first time I have seen this action in a film - to suggest he has a gun. At one point, standing at a bar, he pulls out his revolver and gives it a little spin, confirming for the audience that he is indeed armed. One can feel the film building up to a violent climax.

In a very striking, pre-Expressionist shot, we witness a door open and see a shadow cover it, preceding Snapper and his gang before their entrance. It is delightful to see Griffith playing with effects to establish a mood - something that will of course be a hallmark of full-blown film noir. In another shot, the rival gang passes before a store front window in which all their reflections are clearly, and quite deliberately, visible. Such touches not only heighten the action, but help to elaborate the language of film.

Snapper and his gang (which now includes a third member) make their way back to a now nearly-empty Pig Alley. A great comic moment bursts the tension as a Chinese man accidently brushes into Snapper from behind, sending him, in his jumpy state, into a momentary panic. Recovering himself when he sees what it is, he laughs both at the situation and himself. As his gang leaves the alley, we see the rival’s gang creeping slowly around a corner and hugging against the wall slowly, following them.

One of the most powerful shots comes as Snapper and his gang come around a corner and move toward the camera on the right-hand side of the screen, their faces gradually pulling into such threateningly severe close ups that the audience was sure to feel their menace about to pour into the theatre around them. It is a very bold shot, but it is done with subtlety and a sure hand. Nowhere does Griffith allow any of these effects to distract from his narrative - in fact, they only work to heighten the tension that is building.

The rival gang, in their game of cat and mouse, sneak back into a now-desolate Pig Alley, where they all hide, behind juts of walls and trash cans, to set up an ambush. Snapper and his boys enter the frame slowly, cautiously surveying the seemingly empty place. Suddenly, the screen erupts in a hail of gunfire that must have caused audiences in 1912 to jump from their seats. Several gangsters on both sides drop dead, but Snapper backs away and escapes. In doing so, he inadvertently backs into his former victim, the young musician, who is out searching for his money. In the heat of the moment, the musician is able to snatch his wallet back from Snapper, who cannot properly react, as he is naturally preoccupied with the gunfight, and soon he has to move back in action.

Immediately, Pig Alley is covered by a swarm of policemen, who quickly shut down the mutual slaughter and begin the incarcerations of the survivors. Snapper gets away from the clutches of a cop by temporarily blinding him and running off, but the staggering officer recovers and gives pursuit.

Back inside the little apartment, a depressed Gish is surprised by her husband’s entrance with his recovered money. They grasp each other in ecstatic celebration.

Meanwhile, just outside their door, Snapper is still in the process of getting away from the law. He runs and knocks on their door, and when it is opened, he bursts inside. Shocked to see both Gish and the musician together, he reminds the young lady of just who he is, then grasps her arm as if to drag her away. The husband quickly pulls his bride back. Snapper, enraged, advances as if to strike him, but Gish intercedes. She explains that the musician is her husband, much to Snapper’s shock and disbelief.

Elmer Booth plays through many ranges of emotion very quickly here. He goes from shock to anger to a befuddled quizzing at the beautiful girl’s choice of partners, scratching his head as if to say, "If that don’t beat all!" Finally, he shrugs the whole thing off, and exits with a smile and a wave. The performance brilliantly encapsulates the gangster’s natural combination of hair-trigger instincts with a jaunty capacity for emotional adjustment that makes him a successful survivor of life on the streets. He stops in his tracks again and approaches the musician, as if comparing himself to him. Finally, he brushes the whole thing away, accepting what he can’t understand and leaves.

With incredible economy and charisma, Booth here sets a pattern for the classic gangster portraiture that will become mythologized down through the century. We will meet this fascinating character again and again - and American audiences will never tire of him. He is violent, unpredictable, wise, sarcastic and funny. He commands our attention - he frightens and attracts us at the same time. We love him because he fascinates us - we never know what he is going to do next. There is a powerful sexual streak in him that attracts men (as admirers) just as much as it does women. There is obviously a very complex psychology of this character, the analysis of which could (and has) filled volumes. The amazing thing is that the character appears here so fully formed.

Back outside, Snapper is immediately nabbed by his police pursuer. He argues that he has been inside the apartment the entire time, and the cop drags him back to check out his story. Pushing their way inside, Snapper confronts the couple and tells the young couple to confirm to the cop that he has been there with them all along and could not have been involved with the alley shootout. He gives them a quick, knowing wink.

A title card appears, announcing "One Good Turn Deserves Another." The young couple quickly confirms Snapper’s story, while Snapper stares back at the cop with such an indescribably sarcastic face of false innocence which is really smugness. His performance is simply extraordinary.

Now off the hook, both the cop and Snapper leave the apartment, Snapper turning back quickly to give them a sign of both gratitude and "we got away with it" insouciance.
Back out on the street, the cop lectures Snapper about staying out of trouble, while Snapper, slyly smiling, nods his head and casually lights a cigarette. He is left alone again on the street, a free man.

It seems to me that the film should end here, and I must confess that I do not understand the actual ending. A title card displays, "Links In the System," then cuts back to Snapper, standing as before. An unknown hand enters the frame from the right, holding a pile of cash. Snapper stands stunned for a moment, then takes the money. We cut back to the apartment and the happy couple for the final shot.

What has just happened? Who has given Snapper the money and why? Is it the "Big Boss," rewarding him for playing his part so well and not harming the couple? How would he know about it, and what’s the whole affair to him?

The implication is that no action goes unwatched in the city’s criminal underworld - and that eventually, the seeming "free agent" is going to have to pay - or in this case, be paid - for ultimately doing the wrong or the right thing. If Griffith’s message here is that the criminals are all linked into a massive web that is beyond their control, it is certainly understated here and not really bourne out by the rest of the text of the film.

The action does add one final irony to the tale, however, in an ending filled with ironies. The entire scenario introduces layers of contradictory interpretations of morality that will fill the gangster film with unanswerable questions throughout its long history. What, indeed, is the correct thing to do in a corrupt world? When one’s environment is filled with criminals, and controlled by criminals, exactly to whom and what does the citizen hold his allegiance?

Snapper’s "good turn" is simply not to do any further violence to the young couple. In return (or perhaps in fear?), they do not turn him over to the police. Snapper is then "rewarded" for his noble behavior as a criminal for not going past someone’s imaginary line of behavior.

In form, style, and in the deep implications of social and moral philosophy, The Musketeers of Pig Alley goes a tremendously long way to establishing the very core of one of American cinema’s most potent and fecund fields of mythology. That Griffith succeeded so well in discovering, as well as conveying, so much on the subject on its maiden voyage is a testament both to the sensitivity of his artistry and the fascinating depths of his subject matter.

The Musketeers of Pig Alley is, amazingly, a sheer masterpiece of early film making - one that shows not only how far cinema had developed in just a short decade, but opening up the curtain to reveal a vast underground world of drama and grammar to be explored more and more deeply in the world to come.

1 comment:

Vidor said...

The "good turn" performed by the Snapper Kid is to prevent Gish from drinking the drink that the other gangster drugged.