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Analysis of a Scene from The Untouchables

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When I saw the Station Steps – scene the first time I liked and enjoyed it . But after I saw Battleship Potemkin I wanted to watch this sequence again. This time with a critical point of view instead of watching the film through the eyes of a pre-teenager. Brian De Palma borrowed quite directly from Eisestein’s Potemkin’s key scene’s elements: stairs, baby in a carriage rolling down the stairs – and used these to illustrate his films mood. The style is relevant to Eisenstein’s montage. Cutting between the babycarriage and violent gun shootout makes the watcher become more involved. The other montage element, which could be called metric montage, is how the speed of editing increases when the shootout starts.

This film fits into the genre of the ganster film. There are very familliar elements: for example tommy guns, brutal dominating boss of the underworld, the costumes etc. Also this movie could be categorized within the drama and crime genre.

The film takes place in 1930s prohibition-era Chicago. When Al Capone is the head of the underworld and he controls almost everything in the city. As it said in the film he is almost like a governor of Chicago with all the power he has got. The Federal Bureau of Investigation sets a young agent, Elliot Ness, to catch Capone. Ness collects a three man group and these fellows start to battle against Capone’s empire. Their struggle begins succesfully. Capone gets frustrated because his business suffers from the actions of Ness’ group. Capone arranges the death to two members of this untouchable group. The second to be assianated is Ness’ very close friend Malone. His last words lead Elliot and Stone into the Railway Station because they need Capone’s bookkeeper alive so he can testify against Capone in court. This sequence occurs at this point in the film. In this sequence there is a conflict between the good and the bad guys. The drama comes from this conflict: Will they get their man?

I will concentrate on the aspects of building tension. I consider that there are no deeper meaning in this scene. De Palma just took advantage of one of movie history’s classical scenes or made a tribute for Eisenstein. Although it is a well done scene if the origin is forgotten. The dramatic elements are built quite interestingly. I start the analyse when Ness and Stone arrive into the station and end it when the baby carriages are saved by Stone.


Lighting and Colour

There is used high-key lighting with dark shadow areas to create the atmospere and mood. There is blueish shade in the station. This might suggest sterilisation and coldness. Considering the following actions, the colour blue is suitable for a coldblooded shootout where innocent people are being killed. The shadows also fit in this theme. When Ness and the viewer are waiting the villains and the bookkeeper, the shadows and the gloom generate a nightime atmosphere. This works for narrative reasons, indicating the time of the day. And also as a tension builder, the darkness is a sign of a lurking danger

Props and Setting

The main setting is already several times mentioned – the train station. The setting is very interesting. This very public place has lots of space around. It’s a large area with roof in highness. The dominant elements are the columns which create the feel of heightness. The actual stairs aren’t so long but by the use of camera and editing there is created a feeling that those would be longer. The important thing for narrative and dramatic purposes is the big clock above the main entrance. It is used to indicate the time and keep the watcher aware. And ofcourse the carriage, which is in key part before and during the shootout. When the gunfight begins the carriages start to roll down the steps. When the carriage reaches the downstairs and stops the movement by Stone the most intensive shooting is behind. This is used to get the watcher more involved with the actions.


There are four key characters in the sequence: Ness, Stone, The Bookkeeper, The Villain which threatens the Bookkeeper at the end of the scene. The most showing sidecharacter is the mother of the child in the carriage. Ness observes her helplessly try to get upstairs with the carriages and luggage. Her character’s (same as the baby’s) function is get the watcher become more emotionally involved with the action. In other words the viewer is emphatized for them. The most important character is Ness. This is noticeable from the use of camera and camera angles. When he is observing the situation from above, his is acting nervous for the general situation’s and most of all completely innnocences mother and child figures’ sake. Ness got a moral dilemma which is reflected in his turning head. He is considering between two choises: should he help and protect the innocent people or will they get their way out of the danger without Elliot’s helping hand.

It is quite obvious who are the good guys and which the bad ones. The main concentration is firstly on Mr. Ness and Stone. Ness wears a formal suit and a long coat. E. Ness is a federal agent with a clear sense of justice. He plays by the book, he is a systematic, well organized family man, but he doesn’t have field experience. Earlier killed, Malone was to him a close friend and some kind of tutor of real police action. Malone was also a father figure to Elliot and because of these reasons Jim’s death was hard on him. This brings the elements of revenge and getting the justice. One theme of this film could be lead from one of Malone’s lecture of police action.

“Are you willing to do what the other guy does?” he asks from Ness before they start their actions. When the film proceeds Elliot changes as a person. Before the shootout he hesitates, but when the gansters arrive, he is ready to go all the way for the justice. Stone is wearing moccasine or leather jacket. Anyway he isn’t so formally dressed. His style is more relaxed and kind of rebellious, but his movement is confident and upstanding. He is a young promising policeofficer who has good aim. He is very determined what he wants to do for living – to protect and serve the ordinary citizens. He represents the purity and the hope of the future.

Use of Camera

The sequence starts with an establishing wide shot of the main entrance inside: two massive columns in foreground, the steps in mid-ground and in the background the Elliot and Stone by the front of the main doors below the big clock on the wall above entrance. This is a symmetrical shot with low-angle (from the hall downstairs). The camera moves forward following Stone walking down the steps with a slight tilt downwards. The camera movement stops for a few seconds when Stone reaches the downstairs and the shot comes into medium close-up with eye-level. Stone passes the screen and the camera continues it’s movement upwards to left where Elliot is standing and observing the station’s situation. Movement stops at mid shot of him from low angle.

All this was included in one long take which lasted about 30 seconds. After this take the camera starts to observe the area though the eyes of Elliot. There is alternating between the point of view shots and reaction shots of Ness. Pov shots are from high angle underlining the observing Elliot. Reaction shots are low angle and the purpose for this technique is to indicate the controlling situation of E.N.. Point of view shots alternate between the main entrance, the clock , the big quiet hall and the carriages. In the beginning there is many different points of action, but when the scene continues, camera concentrates to the rolling carriages and the violent action around the baby. Before this takes place, the mother and the carriages are showed from a very high angle, at some point straight above them. This indicates again their innocence, helpness and weakness. The changement of the low / high – angles set on rhytmic montage for aesthetic and tension building purposes.


The framing is in harmony in the beginning of the sequence. When Ness takes the observant role, the diagonal lines appear to the frame. The meaning of using this might be to suggest the unsettling atmosphere and of course give a clue to the viewer about what’s going to take place soon. Beside the diagonal lines there is loads of unbalance in framing. For example Ness’ observating shots, he is on the other side on the frame, never in the center, balanced. This indicates the his state of mind. He is trying to make a decission concerning helping the weak mother and baby, the innocence ones, just before the acton. There is harmonical and conventional use of framing In the beginning of the sequence. That creates settling and normal atmosphere into the scene, but that changes when the shot proceeds like I mentioned.


There are only straght cuts in the sequence and the rules of continuity editing are followed. The interesting aspect of editing is how the pace of editing changes. It could be said that Eisenstein’s idea of metric montage has influenced to this also. The sequence starts with long take, after that the overall time of edits remain quite the same length, but when the carriages are pushed on to the steps and the guns have started fireing the pace of editing increases but the time is expanded by slow motion and cutting between shots which take place at the same time.

For example carriages/shootout. The sound of the carriage’s wheel is almost on sync with the increasing pace of editing. The lower the carriages go the faster the pace turns. When Stone stops the carriages and it’s movement stops the pace of editing calms down. This technique is used to once again to make the strongest possible dramatic and intensive effect from a time what would be otherweise quickly over. In other words slow pace is used for create dramaturgial elements. First the slow pace is used to build tension, then fast pace to emphatise and underline the actual action, ending resolving situation, after fastened pace, return to the slow pace for dramaturgial aspects.


The soundworld has also interesting elements. First there is only the basic background and ambient sounds, steps, passing people, the announcements of leaving trains tc.. When the carriage appears there appears a baby’s cry and contrapuntal sound from chime box. All sounds are amplified to create certain mood or add elements for perceiving the stations representation including the non-diegetic voice music box. Echohing sounds indicate first of all the large space in the happening place, and second they keep the viewer’s attention on the edge.

The score music comes unnoticedly along the sequence and fuses with the contrapuntal music box sound with triangle. The music gets smooth more dramatic and louder and threathing when the tension before the gun battle is built. When the shootout starts and the carriage drifts to the steps, the only sounds beside the score music that is heard comes from guns, bullets and from the carriage. Other sounds are muted. When the carriage stops the music box sound starts again, very smoothly. Indicating the succesfull protection of the innocent baby who survived alive from this awful bloodbath.

Summary – How the tension is build?

The tension comes from how that conflict is resolved. The important element of building and heightening tension is delaying the resolution. In this case the editing has a major role. The use of cross-cutting sets up two areas of action: a) the baby in the rolling carriages and b) the shooting gangsters. The main theme: protect (the innocent) and serve (get the guilty ones) are noticeabled in the use of cross-cutting. At the end of all there is severial elements which form the final result. In this case beside the editing, the amplified sounds (background, contrapuntal, score), the use of camera and framing add special elements in the building of tension. This sequence with nicked idea works after all for the entertainment values. I consider this sequence very aesthetic and technically well made piece of work. It’s not a masterpiece but worth of watching.

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