The Untouchables

Throughout De Palma’s career, he has spent time exploring the idea of corruption from within. De Palma has examined the ideas of power and justice in previous films such as; Blow Out, Scarface and The Bonfire of the Vontities. This theme is carried out throughout The Untouchables. During the motion picture, De Palma uses a number of film techniques to create tension and excitement throughout. The climax reaches its height in the station scene. When the scene opens, the audience is immediately faced with a feeling of anticipation, as a car drives at high speed along the road.

It weaves in and out of the traffic with its horn blazing.

This opening sequence is followed by the camera panning in to show a close up the speeding car wheel. This shot is super ceded by the camera slowly moving up to reveal the two inhabitants; Ness and Stone. The use of lighting in films is very important and can easily set the mood for a scene.

For example, the time of day can be established by the quantity of light. During the car scene, De Palma uses lighting to effect. The lighting inside the car is subtle; with only the faces lightly illuminated, making sure that the audience are fully concentrated on Ness and Stone and what they have to say.

Stone and Ness appears detached, as if they are anxious to get some where. This is demonstrated through their dialogue which is short and to the point. Again, this adds to the growing tension.

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As the two characters walk to the train station, their fixed expressions are heightened. They are focused on what is going to happen next. When Ness says, ‘The book keeper is no good to us dead……… Stone? ‘ the audience feels unnerved and tense; can Stone (the proti?? gi?? ) hold himself together so that he does not shoot the book keeper?

For this is the penultimate scene, if they can capture the book keeper (the only one who can decode the ledger book) they can put Al Capone successfully behind bars. Also we remember back to the previous scene in which Malone (Ness’s mentor) was killed by Capone’s cronies. This adds an emotional level to the scene and hence ups the tension and excitement; for without the book keeper, Malone’s death would have been in vain. Throughout the film De Palma has use a number of different camera shots/angles and editing to create more of an effect on the audience.

For example, the scene in which Malone is killed, De Palma uses a point of view shot in which we see everything through the eyes of one of Capone’s cronies; in doing this, De Palma is able to give the audience a completely different cinematic experience. This is true for the station scene. He uses continuity editing which gives the impression of an unbroken continuum in time, where everything runs smoothly. For example, when Stone and Ness reach the station and open the door, this followed by a smooth switch over to an extreme long shot; which hence gives the impression that everything runs smoothly.

The extreme long shot shows two enormous pillars and a huge lobby, putting into perspective the two men and the vast area they have to cover. This sustains the tension and excitement in the scene, how can Ness and Stone possibly watch and cover such a large area between them? Then Stone is sent to cover the south entrance, leaving Ness alone covering the main entrance, this cultivating anticipation within the audience. Ness takes a vantage point from which he can oversee the entrance hall and looks up at the clock; it is four minutes to twelve.

Ness looks back to watch Stone walk across then entrance hall to the south exit. The audience hears Stones’ foot steps echo across the hall, which re-establishes the fact that they have such a huge area to cover. Sound of course plays a vital effect on how motion picture is perceived. These are separated into three main sets; diegetic, non diegetic and extra-diegetic. Diegetic sound is when you can see what’s making the noise; for example if a person is playing the piano and you can hear a piano, the sound is obviously the piano.

Non diegetic sound on the other hand is when we can’t see what’s making the noise but we know what is making it; for example an announcement from a speakerphone. Whereas extra-diegetic is a noise that is not part of the film; for instance a sound track playing over the top. As Ness turns away from the clock we instantly hear a baby crying, a non diegetic noise as we know what is making the sound. Instantly Ness’s concentration is drawn away from the job at hand, the presence of a child at once creates tension as there is now another distraction.

At the same time a low discordant note plays, adding an eeriness to the scene. As the baby is trundled into view, an unsettling baby lullaby plays over the top; this being an extra diegetic sound effect. Adding to this first distraction, the announcer calls for all passengers for the 12:05 train to board. This raises the tension in the scene as there is already too much happening. Simultaneously De Palma switches to a point of view shot, in which the audience are looking at the clock and the front entrance. Already people are coming through the doors.

The audience’s anticipation grows as they don’t know what the book keeper looks like. It is clearly visible that Ness is distracted by the baby as he repeatedly looks over to the child in the pram and his mother, thus causing this anxiety for the audience. This is carried on as Ness’s full attention is drawn towards the mother and her desperate attempts to calm the child down. The shift in attention heightens the tension as we worry that Ness might miss the book keeper. Again the announcement is made. More people come through the door. Time is passing by and the child is still playing on the audiences mind.

These few changes help keep the excitement and tension sustainable. As the mother caries on soothing her child, the orchestral music playing in the back ground slowly rises. However more tension is created by the shadows of the people walking past, and the start of slow eerie music. Throughout this scene De Palma has chosen to use a point of view shot in which we can see everything that Ness sees as if through his eyes. This is extremely useful in that it shows where the characters attention lies and is also a useful instrument in creating tension and anxiety.

By only showing what Ness is concentrating on, the audience grow anxious over what else is happening around Ness that he is not seeing. A suspicious looking character comes into frame wearing the typical gangster clothing. The baby music lowers to be heard quietly in the background; horns can be heard with a ‘look out’ type of melody raising the tension of the scene. Audiences know that Ness is distracted by this man as his focus as well as ours is drawn away from the baby. The music fits in with this feeling, with slight increases in volume followed by quiet. The music seeps away as the man becomes no threat.

De Palma is a clever film maker. He cleverly takes certain things from different films and fits them into his films. This is what sets De Palma apart from many film makers. The constant checking of the time and the fact that is moving towards noon, is in reference to the film ‘High Noon,’ in which the penultimate part of the film (as in ‘The Untouchables’) is when the clock strikes twelve. The merge of the films is rammed home by the constant camera shots of the clock, as if waiting for it to stick at twelve. This anticipation both sustains and creates tension and excitement for the audience.

Another thing that De Palma does to make this scene different is the fact that the scene is in real time – everything occurs on screen in the time span of the scene. De Palma’s constant use of camera shots easily shows where Ness’s concentration lies. It becomes very obvious that Ness is caught between two sides, the obvious need to carry out his duty and his moral duty; should he help the woman? Of course, these feelings are perceived by the audience, they too undergo the same dilemma. This feeling grows to frustration and heightened tension as yet more people pass and still no-one offers the woman any assistance.

As Ness looks down on the woman in dismay, the audience are reminded that he himself is a family man. However Ness’s interests are in conflict; on the one hand he has his official duty (to arrest the book keeper) and that of his moral duty, (to help the weak). Ness takes one last look at the clock realising that it has hit twelve and with this last glance at the clock the audience again hear the low ominous horns sustaining the tension. Ness finally gives in to his moral duty. The music used in the film has a huge part in sustaining and hightening the tension and excitement.

One of the most effective instruments used in the set scene are the horns. When the horns play, it warns the audience of the danger and brings their attention in to what is happening around Ness. This is expertly used when two suspicious men walk down the opposite staircase. As they draw level we hear the horns, which confirms our suspicion. This is followed immediately by a reaction shot of Ness who is becoming aware of the danger; what will Ness do? Tension is further sustained with the use of sound. The women’s distracting chatter, the pram’s heave and awkward clank.

We wonder how Ness keeps his focus? Another of Al Capone’s men comes in, Ness looks uneasily at him and as he turns round yet more men come in to the station. It seems that Ness is surrounded and the audience’s excitement of what will happen grows. However, as Ness looks round he does not see another of Capone’s men come in. It is the gangster that Ness hit earlier on in the film. The audience (tension rising) and question whether gangster recognises him and whether when Ness is seen by him, he will be recognised. He currently appears to be the baby’s farther, but the audience knows this can’t last.

At this point the baby starts crying and De Palma gives us a closeup. This is a sign of what is going to happen and shows the baby’s helplessness and innocence. Will the baby survive? As the baby’s crying gets louder, the camera suddenly switches to the gangster with the broken nose and slowly closes up on his face. At the very same time the music starts to get louder, heightening the tension. The camera changes to Ness and gradually gets closer, as if showing the gangster slowly starting to remember who Ness actually is. In unison the orchestral music reaches a crescendo, signalling that something big is going to happen.

All the tension that De Palma has managed to create and sustain thought the scene so far, has been built up until the moment when Ness fires the first shot. When he does, we get an immediate reaction shot of Stone, but moving in slow motion; heightening tension as to whether Stone will get there in time. From this moment onwards, De Palma has chosen to shoot the scene in slow motion, thus allowing the audience to appreciate every moment. However by also choosing to shoot in slow motion, De Palma manages to make the fight seem almost graceful, thus making the audience understand and appreciate De Palma’s skill as a film maker.

De Palma demonstrates his skill by editing sound and only allowing sounds that he wants the audience to hear; by doing this, he makes the audience concentrate on the most important aspects of what is happening. De Palma chooses to allow us to hear the load clank as the pram rolls down the stairs, the gun fire and the slow echoing foot steps of Stone as he runs to the rescue. De Palma has a good knowledge of film and he shows us this in the closing part of this scene. The shoot out reminding us of cowboy films (‘High Noon’) and also he uses the classic film ‘Battleship Potemkin’, these demonstrating how well he can manipulate his audience.

However De Palma has not finished creating tension and excitement during this scene. As the pram falls down the stairs, Ness has to choose either to save the baby or capture the book keeper. Choosing to shoot in slow motion also serves in creating anxiety; as Ness runs after the pram, it seems he is moving too slowly to save the child. Aiding in creating tension are the violins that play eerily over the top, creating an ever more tense atmosphere. As well as the constant sound of bullets ricocheting – reminding the audience of the danger.

As Ness runs out of bullets (highlighted by the load click as he fires), Stone rushes in to save Ness; arriving like the cavalry to save the day. Yet De Palma has not finished showing off his filmmaking technique, for as Stone runs in, De Palma has used a vast montage of shots showing everything that happens in those few seconds. At this point the cradle music that once unnerved the audience now serves as a comfort and is a sign that scales have turned. Ness now has the authority in situation; we get this through the way he takes control of the scene.

Presently we get a reaction shot of the gangster and the bookkeeper; the gangster sweating and the bookkeeper trembling and afraid. All tension is now on the two. The gangster tries to take control of the situation but Ness is calm, conveying this by the slight shake of his head. The gangster is desperate Ness speaks calmly to Stone ‘You got him? ‘ Stone replies with the same air ‘Yeah I got him. ‘

Followed by a close up of the gangster’s sweating face and trembling bookkeeper as he starts to count out ‘One! There is a tense pause of anticipation as the audience wonder what will happen next, no other sound or musical compliments are playing, just silence. ‘Take him,’ Ness says it as if it is nothing to him, followed by the load bang of the gun. ‘Two,’ Stone says very calmly (blackly humorous), with a reaction shot of the gangster slowly falling to the floor. Immediately the orchestra play, still with the same eeriness as the bookkeeper looks down at his ex-comrade. The load click of Stone re-cocks his gun, now all tension is with the bookkeeper.

The scene finishes on Ness; stern and impassive. The audience now are relieved of all anxiety, for justice has prevailed. What has De Palma shown us? Justice wins, in the wake of injustice and corruption, tying in with De Palma’s theme of corruption from within. Ness has done whatever was necessary, even if it was not ‘by the book’ as he was primarily so steadfast in doing. Most importantly De Palma has shown his skilfulness in directing, using a variety of camera angles to create different cinematic experiences. He also uses camera angles to provoke different emotions from the audience.

His usage of sound, music and lighting has successfully been employed to formulate tension and excitement. He uses various editing styles to show the audience just how well he can make and produce a film, as well as influencing his audience in the way he wishes to; to feel worried, afraid, tense or excitement and relieved. In all De Palma has managed to show in one scene the following; how skilful a director he is, his knowledge of films, his ability to take things from previous films and make them his own, also how he can influence an audience into feeling what he wants them to.

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The Untouchables. (2017, Oct 11). Retrieved from

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