Brian De Palma’s talent often shines brightest in self-contained set-pieces. Think back to the gory fireworks of Carrie, the extraordinarily excessive concluding shoot-out in Scarface, the pool-room stand-off in Carlito’s Way, or even the spectacular exploding John Cassavetes in his seldom discussed 1978 thriller, The Fury. These sequences exemplify De Palma’s brilliance as a creator of suspense or shock – a master of composing, manipulating and assembling images for maximum effect.
For me, that mastery reached its peak in one specific (and obvious) moment in The Untouchables. The movie as a whole ranks alongside Scarface and Carlito’s Way as one of De Palma’s most satisfying mainstream thrillers. But in a film full of stand-out scenes, it’s the Union Station sequence that is inarguably the most memorable.
Shot in heart-stopping slow-motion, the sequence is thrilling when seen in the context of the film, but so strongly directed that it can easily viewed in isolation, without any prior knowledge of who its characters are or their motivations. De Palma’s use of camerawork and editing is so precise that it’s easy for even a casual observer to discern who the villains, heroes and victims are
Nevertheless, here’s a sketch of the scene’s place in the overall film: it’s Prohibition-era Chicago. Idealistic cop Elliott Ness (Kevin Costner) along with sharp-shooting partner George Stone (Andy Garcia) have arrived at the city’s Union Station in order to apprehend Mob accountant Walter Payne (Jack Kehoe), who holds evidence that could put crime boss Al Capone in prison.
What follows is the cinematic equivalent of a grand toppling domino display. In a carefully arranged, wide establishing shot, we see Ness and Stone enter the station. The two tiny figures are dwarfed by the building’s colossal pillars, and as the camera zooms and then glides, we’re shown where the two characters go, and where they stand in relation to one another – Ness remains at the top of the stairs, heading off to a vantage point on his right; Stone, meanwhile, descends to the floor below, passing a pair of sailors as he does so.
Meticulously, De Palma gradually builds up the tension. Ness looks pensively over at a clock on the wall, which is gradually ticking towards 12 o’clock – always an ominous time in cinema. A young mother appears at the foot of the stairs, pushing a pram while holding two heavy-looking suitcases. Without dialogue, De Palma illustrates what’s going on inside his hero’s head: Ness stands watching, nervously torn between helping the woman carry her burden up the marble steps, and maintaining his watch for the accountant.
A less confident director would, I’d suggest, have cut this scene rather differently. Anxious to get to the violent part of the set-piece, many filmmakers would probably be inclined to edit the initial build-up down to its barest essentials – a brief look at the clock from Ness, perhaps, and maybe a shot of the woman mounting the staircase.
Instead, De Palma’s build-up lasts more than five minutes. Given that the clock glimpsed earlier read 11:55, this scene plays out more-or-less in real time – something that is becoming increasingly rare in the hyper-kinetic thrillers of the 21st century.
Eventually, Ness gives into his good nature, and rushes down the steps to help the mother drag her pram up the stairs. With each thunk of the wheels on the steps, De Palma continues to build the sense of anticipation with characteristic glee. From a point-of-view shot, Ness watches as the scenario he’s been dreading unfolds: various men in suits – who at this point may or may not be Capone’s heavies – emerge from the doors beneath the clock. From over his right shoulder, the accountant appears, and heads down the stairs.
And then the sequence reaches a turning point. A further figure emerges, whom Ness immediately recognises as one of Capone’s men. And then, in glorious, Sam Peckinpah slow-motion, a blazing shoot-out erupts; brandishing a shotgun, Ness inadvertently lets the pram – baby and all – roll back down the stairs.
At this part of the article, it’s probably customary to point out that the falling pram was inspired by the Odessa Steps scene in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 propaganda film, Battleship Potemkin. The same sequence has been referenced many times in cinema before De Palma appropriated it in 1987 – there are distinct echoes in two Hitchcock films, Foreign Correspondent (1940) and Psycho (1960), while Francis Ford Coppola also staged a similar stair-based sequence in The Godfather – but The Untouchables’ Union Station scene remains the most obvious allusion to the Odessa Steps sequence.
There are two noteworthy things about De Palma’s reference back to Eisenstein. First, that through referencing Eisenstein, De Palma is openly acknowledging his forebear’s profound impact on movie making, in particular his use of montage to wrest emotions out of his audience. Eisenstein’s Odessa Steps sequence is widely hailed as a key moment in the development of cinema as a political and storytelling medium, with multiple shots edited together to create a sensation of chaos and terror.
A second notable thing: De Palma has long been criticised as an overly violent filmmaker, particularly in his 80s cycle of films such as Dressed To Kill, Scarface and Body Double. It’s interesting, then, that De Palma chooses to reference one of the most shockingly violent scenes in all cinema for The Untouchables.
The full Odessa Steps sequence, in which Tsarist soldiers open fire on a crowd of civilians, sees a little boy shot in the back and then crushed to death by fleeing feet. When his mother picks up the shattered body and appeals for help, the soldiers shoot her, too.
Compared to Eisenstein’s scene, The Untouchables’ homage is positively restrained. Could it be that, subconsciously, De Palma is offering a rebuttal to his critics? Violent though De Palma’s films are, this scene in Battleship Potemkin remains one of the most horrific depictions of a wartime atrocity ever committed to celluloid.
The violent incidents mentioned above occur before Potemkin‘s infamous pram moment, where a second mother, trying to protect her baby, is also shot by the marching soldiers. In a close-up, we see the pain and anguish on the woman’s face, blood dripping down her clothes, and then her lifeless body tipping the pram to its jolting roll down the steps.
On the surface, De Palma’s employment of such a powerful moment in cinema may seem somewhat cavalier, but there’s more going on here than mere self-conscious referencing. The Odessa Steps sequence is an illustration of inhumanity in the face of helplessness, and so too is the Union Station sequence, although less grim in its depiction. Ness is the only character in the scene who bothers to help the mother and child – an entire group of commuters is shown rushing by without apparently noticing them, though one has to step over the poor woman’s luggage to get down the stairs. Later, Capone’s men open fire on Ness without any regard for the safety of the infant rolling past in his pram.
I’d also argue that a key scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho is another reference point here, and is perhaps more of an influence on De Palma in terms of its structure of build-up and pay-off. In a bravura moment of editing and cinematography, Hitchcock has the character Arbogast (Martin Balsam) silently mounting a staircase in Norman Bates’ creepy house. We know there’s a crazed killer around, but where?
It seems to take Arbogast an eternity to climb those wooden steps. When he does, Hitchcock switches to a jarringly distant overhead shot, in which we see a figure emerge from an upstairs room and attack the detective with a knife. And just as we’ve adjusted to this dizzying switch of perspective, Hitchcock cuts again to an extreme close-up of Arbogast’s bloodied, screaming face; the camera follows him as he makes a fatal plunge back down the stairs.
Hitchcock found a way to appropriate Eisenenstein’s techniques and imagery for a moment of suspense and then shock rather than propaganda, which is precisely what De Palma achieved in The Untouchables. Hitchcock once said that he disliked the term ‘cutting’ when talking about editing bits of film together, and said he preferred the terms ‘montage’ and assembly. The staircase sequence in Psycho was one of the scenes he held up as an example of his approach to building up suspense through framing and assemblage – a technique that De Palma, a devoted student of Hitchcock’s style of filmmaking, would later use to great effect.
Back in The Untouchables, the bullets are still flying, and the baby’s still rolling down the Union Station steps in its wooden pram. A pair of unlucky sailors have been plugged by a gangster’s erratic aim (another nod to Potemkin). Most hair-raisingly of all, a pair of bullets have struck the pram, though they miraculously avoid the infant within.
Shots of the pram’s wheels skittering down the steps are intercut with bloodied corpses and bullets ricocheting off marble. Ness is reaching for the infant while simultaneously offing hoodlums. Then, thrillingly, after more than seven minutes of tension, De Palma introduces the pay-off, which occurs with breathtaking speed.
Dashing to the rescue, Stone brings the pram to a halt with a knee, as Ness guns down a particularly tenacious bad guy lurking by a Doric column. A brief stand-off, the sequence reaches its gory yet inevitable climax: Stone has his gun trained on the last of Capone’s men, who’s taken the accountant hostage in a final act of desperation. Unfortunately for the henchman, his sweaty demands have little effect in the face of Stone’s dead aim. At Ness’ command, “Take him,” a single bullet is discharged, the hoodlum despatched, a startling scene concluded.
Amazingly, this most audaciously staged of shoot-outs wasn’t even in the original script. Ness and Stone were originally meant to engage in a gunfight inside a train carriage. When Paramount bosses concluded that building a 30s train would stretch the budget too far, De Palma came up with the sequence seen in the finished film, shot on location in Chicago’s station to save money.
Through a mixture of fortune, inspiration and artistry, De Palma created an unusual fusion of violence and intelligent design for The Untouchables’ standout sequence. A remarkable gathering together of technique and scholarly referencing, it is surely one of the finest action scenes in 80s cinema.