47 Great Movie Moments #21 – The Untouchables

Continuing with this series of 47 moments in film that I love (Why 47?), today, for #21, we hit the most violent movie on this list up until this point:

The Untouchables (1987)

Directed by: Brian De Palma

Treasure Agent Eliot Ness and his team of agents work tirelessly to take down noted crime boss, Al Capone.

The Set-up

The cost of Eliot Ness’ crusade against Al Capone has taken a terrible cost, with two members of his squad having been gunned down by Al Capone’s criminal organization.  But now he has a chance to put Capone away for good, albeit for tax evasion, if he can only capture Capone’s bookkeeper, who is about to skip town by late night train.  Ness (Kevin Costner) and his remaining ally, sharpshooter George Stone (Andy Garcia), arriving at the train station, each opting to guard a different entrance.

The Moment

Ness waits nervously at the top of a staircase, waiting for any signs of Capone’s men or the bookkeeper. A women with a couple of heavy suitcases and a baby in a carriage arrive at the bottom of stairs, and the woman struggles to get all of her things up the steps.  Not being able to stand it any longer, Ness hurries down and begins to help.  But as he comes to the top, he begins to see a whole group of suspicious looking people taking up positions around the entrance.  Finally, in the doorway, is a man he recognizes, whose nose he broke earlier in the film.  Ness pulls the shot gun that he is carrying under his jacket, and fires.

In the gunfight that breaks out, the baby carriage gets jostled and begins to role down the steps.  Bullets fly everywhere, with both mobsters and innocent bystanders being cut down.  Ness, himself a family man, chases after the baby carriage down the stairs, but must continue to exchange gunfire all along the way.  Finally, he is out of bullets.  Just as he is about to be cut down, and as the carriage is about to hit the bottom of the stairs, George Stone skids around the corner, tossing Ness a gun and sliding into a position to catch the carriage with his legs, stopping it safely.  His hands free, he trains his gun with razor like precision on the last mobster, who now threatens to kill the bookkeeper if he’s not allowed to leave.  He gives Ness five seconds to decide.

This whole sequence is amazing.  The beginning, as Ness waits for someone to show up at the train station is a clear homage to Hitchcock, with the ticking clock and the various people walking through who might or might not be an enemy.  And the crying baby adds an inescapable source of nervousness to everything.

Once the shootout begins the movie switches to slow motion and a highly stylized sound design, with only very specific sounds being audible:  the gunshots, the clack of the baby carriage hitting the steps, and a few footsteps.  This whole section is a clear reference to the famous Odessa steps sequence from the famous silent film, Battleship Potemkin (1925, directed by Sergei Eisentstein), but goes a long way beyond being just a copy.  In the under-two minutes that the film goes into this slow motion look, there something like 99 different shots, which together with the sound make for a hypnotically rhythmic viewing experience.  It’s frankly brilliant, truly a masterclass in film editing.

Another big part of the sequence’s success which I have to mention is the score, by the great Ennio Morricone.  This section of the movie has a children’s lullaby playing, mixed in with some discordant musical intrusions keeping us feeling unsettled and on our toes.  It’s great stuff.

The Payoff

Ness has five seconds to decide whether to let the bookkeeper go, but he doesn’t acutally need that long.  After telling the mother that her baby is okay, Ness asks Stone, who is still lying holding the baby carriage with his legs, his gun trained on the last mobster, “You got him?

“Yeah, I got him,” replies Stone.  Ness lowers his own gun.

“One!” yells the Mobster, staring his countdown.

“Take him,” says Ness, and Stone puts a bullet down the mobsters throat.

“Two,” Stone finishes.

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