Scene Is Believing: The Untouchables

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The Union Station Shoot-out

We’re so used to many directors storyboarding out scenes nowadays that it is a surprise to see how a complex piece of gun play like the railway steps scene from The Untouchables wasn’t even scripted.

The surviving “Untouchables” Elliott Ness (Kevin Costner) and foot soldier Stone (Andy Garcia) discover from the dying Malone (Sean Connery) that Al Capone’s book-keeper is being spirited away on the midnight train from Union Station. He and his ledgers are the key to bringing Capone to book on income tax dodging, and Ness is determined to bring him back to testify in court.

David Mamet originally scripted a complex race against Chicago traffic, just missing the train until our heroes catch up at the next station, before boarding and blasting away. The scene ends with Stone taking out the hoodlum using the book-keeper as a shield  with a head shot.

However, it was too costly for Paramount. They’d already caved to De Palma’s demand for Robert De Niro as Capone, over original compromise Bob Hoskins (De Niro got up to $2 million for a few short scenes, while Hoskins was paid off for $20,000, according to him. He quipped to De Palma, “If you ever don’t want me  to be in a movie, just give me a call.”) 

There was also the matter of repetition. The film opens with a high shot looking down on Capone’s smug face holding court to reporters, being prepared for a shave in his private railway carriage. It was too inconvenient for Mamet to rewrite  a climactic scene – he was off directing his debut feature of his own script, House Of Games. Besides, De Palma believed “Writers don’t have good visual ideas. It’s my job to give them ideas to work with.” So he thought back to an idea he’d had for earlier in the film, whereby Ness and his wife would be leaving hospital with their newborn. A thug takes a shot, and in the gunfight, the baby carriage bounces down the hospital steps, in a homage to Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. He rejected it because he’d have shot his load too early – how do you top that?  Why not resurrect it for the grander, easier to control, night shoot of the Union Station interior?

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Trouble was, he didn’t have time to write it. The shooting script simply states:

“Ness and Stone go into action. This action will take place on the steps, to be outlined later.”

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The elaborate, tense, coruscating tour de force took six nights to shoot, all mapped out as ideas occurred to the director and his team. The scene last about nine minutes, the book-keeper and his minders not appearing until around the six minute mark. Meanwhile, a nervous Ness has gone to the aid of a young mother struggling up the steps with a heavy case and baby carriage. His innate decency in leaving his post to help threatens to put the plan in jeopardy: his nudging of the carriage back down the steps creating a domino effect of catastrophe as the lead flies.

 

 

The tense build up is caught in close-ups of his face anxiously checking the clock, then the mother, then the clock. Previously, the by the book lawman has always had the experienced Malone by his side. While he told Malone he wanted to “hurt Capone,” to take “The Chicago Way,” he wonders if he has it in him. As yet, he hasn’t fired first. When the broken-nosed thug makes him, Ness raises his concealed shotgun and draws first blood. Virtually all sound except the gunshots drop out as the ballet of death plays out in glorious slo-mo, taking out hoodlums and innocent passers-by indiscriminately. The mayhem ends when Stone slides across the floor to arrest the carriage’s descent, to the mother’s relief, meantime tossing Ness a fresh gun and drawing a steady bead on the hood using the book-keeper as a shield. Only now does Mamet’s script return:

 

Ness:    You got him?

Stone: Yeah, I got him.

Ness:    Take him.

That’s The Chicago Way. And that’s how you get Capone.

Originally posted 2014-02-11 14:55:28. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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