This article contains spoilers for The Untouchables.
There are a few movies where, when released or rewatched, us stuffy academic types who teach film or write about film start foaming at the mouth. Because there will be one short scene that sums up a few aspects of film construction so perfectly, that we'll be using it to demonstrate this to long suffering students and friends for years. Whether they want us to or not.
For this writer's tutor, it was Terminator 2. The scene in the hospital with the guard killing his doppelganger – used to show skilful editing, use of effects and how shortcuts can be taken by using twins. Something James Cameron does a few times in that film.
But perhaps an even better example, one that sums up so much of film history, construction, and performance, is the staircase scene in Brian De Palma's The Untouchables.
The set up is a sting operation. In which Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) and his team of Untouchables are waiting in Chicago's Union Station to arrest Al Capone's (Robert DeNiro) head bookkeeper, Walter Payne (Jack Kehoe).
The scene opens with Ness and George Stone (Andy Garcia) arriving at the station. There is virtually no dialogue, as Ness observes the minutiae of people walking through the station, oblivious to what is impending. We follow Ness's eyes, the editing shows us him looking across, then shows us what he sees, down, and we look down with him on the woman with the pram, across again, to the soldiers, cleaners, and possible threats.
His focus drifts between the woman, and the impending threats. That focus drifting and lurching back with the child's cries, and the possibility of each new person in the station possibly wielding a gun. Each sideways look, each twitch of their coat, pulls Ness's focus away from the baby, and towards the impending fight.
Elliot sees the young woman struggling to pull her pram up a flight of stairs, and goes to assist her. The rhythmic thud, thud, thud of the pram being lugged up the stairs creates a heartbeat that emphasises the suspense building in the scene. Every time Ness stops, the heartbeat stops, skipping beats as he takes in the potential threats around him.
The beat slows in the final steps, as the accountant walks past, and like a sniper focusing for a kill, Elliot brings absolute focus to his original intended task. Everything else slows too, as the gunshot takes out one of Capone's goons, sending him flying backwards dramatically through a glass door. Ness loses sight of the pram, and it slowly, slowly, starts falling back down the stairs. A clear call-back to another film tutor favourite – Battleship Potemkin.
Once again, the pram creates a thudding heartbeat to the scene. As everything happens in slow motion, Ness forgets about the child. He pushes back the mother he initially helped, letting the innocent go falling directly into the line of fire. As he falls, the speed increases, taking the tension higher with it. The gunfire follows the infant down the stairs. There are near misses, and then relief as Andy Garcia's Stone catches the pram in the last moment at the bottom of the stairs.
The audience are forced to focus on the baby and its mother. Her screams are silent – unheard by Ness and us. The only sound in the scene is the thudding of the pram, the gunshots flying past it, and Ennio Morricone's incomparable score. De Palma takes a lesson from Hitchcock here, as he so often does, by keeping the audience ever so slightly more in the loop than his characters are. The framing and editing keep our focus on the threat to the innocent life caught in the middle of the chaos, as the characters are focused on the gunfight. We are only peripherally aware of the bullets flying, apart from how they relate to the baby.
This has two effects; it tells us a lot about Ness as a character. He's a family man, but he has such laser focus on the job in front of him that his ability to empathise with other parents is lost in this moment. It also reminds us that the actions of cops and criminals play out far beyond just themselves. Innocents are regularly caught in the crossfire, often children. As also shown in another earlier scene. It is only when the battle is nearly won, that Ness attempts to multitask – catch the baby, and catch the bad guys. Ultimately putting the child in more peril in the process.
Brian De Palma's masterpiece The Untouchables is getting a 4k release to coincide with it's 35th anniversary. It's hard to believe that it's 35 years old however, as it feels so fresh still. De Palma's skill for in camera editing and effects are in fine form here. As we see not just his charming love letters to Hitchcock in his choice of framing and his methods of building suspense, but his more old-fashioned choices of split focus lenses and heady scores.
You'd also be hard pushed to find a more iconic cast, not just in Costner's Elliot Ness, but Sean Connery's apparently Irish Jim Malone. His accent isn't exactly accurate but it doesn't detract from his performance. Then you have Robert DeNiro as Al Capone. Despite some flawed choices in recent years, between this and The Godfather Part 2, among other things, you can see why he is a cinematic legend.
There are minor flaws of course, it's very white, very male, very violent, and anything that seems “pro-cop” these days always edges towards the controversial. However, as tempted as you may be to dismiss stories such as this, for these reasons, it's worth putting these things aside.
The new 4k release comes packaged in a very snazzy steelbook. Designed to look like a Bourbon bottle label but making use of the steel format by adding some embossed bullet holes. It also contains a poster and some art cards. The special features are the same as included on the previous Blu-ray release. But that said they are worth a watch. While it may seem redundant to watch these old films on 4k, with the right set up it can be worth it for the score alone, particularly in this case. Ennio Morricone has rarely sounded better.
The Untouchables is arguably De Palma's best film, or at least one of his best. It's iconic, gripping, compelling and holds up brilliantly. Stick it on, pour yourself a measure of contraband booze, and settle in for 2 hours of “the Chicago way”.
Kevin Costner, Sean Connery and Robert De Niro Star in the Must-See Crime-Drama, Debuting on 4K Ultra HD™ June 6, 2022