In this essay I will analyze the railway scene in the film 'The Untouchables'. I will mainly concentrate on the creation of suspense; I will be looking at the three things that directors use to create different types of atmosphere. These three things are camera angles and movement, the use of sound and lighting and to what extent they contribute. This scene is supposed to be a tense ending to the violence, the final shoot out to try and get Al Capone put in prison.
The audience would probably be quite confused and wondering who is who and why each thing is happening. This confusion adds to the tension. The scene (and film) is set in Chicago during the 1930's. In the 1930's America was under prohibition, prohibition meant that it was illegal to sell, make or transport alcohol. Although this rule was made there was still a lot of money to be made with alcohol through bootlegging. Bootlegging was illegally selling alcohol, almost everyone knew about bootlegging and where to buy alcohol.
Obviously the alcohol was sold at a higher price then it would be usually, much much higher, this meant that the consumer still had to spend a lot of money for it, which detracted from the original point of prohibition which was to stop people spending money on alcohol as the countries economy was collapsing as shares were worth nothing. In Chicago during this time, not unlike other cities around America there were many rival gangs, which ran Chicago, the most important gang leader was Al Capone. He was the richest man for miles and reportedly earned 170,000,000 a year! Which in those days especially was astronomical.
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He is the gangster that Elliot Ness a federal agent, George Stone a trainee policeman, James Malone a veteran policeman, and Oscar Wallace an accountant, are out to stop. By the time of this scene, only Ness And Stone are left living and have vowed to catch Al Capone. But they cannot prove anything about him that would send him to jail although he is a known gangster, there is nothing concrete until they found out that he hadn't been paying his income taxes and his bookkeeper could prove it. His bookkeeper was about to be taken away by train maybe incase he was bribed or threatened and put Capone in trouble.
Ness And Stone's last chance to catch Capone is to get the bookkeeper, alive. First I am going to go through the main narrative points of the scene:
- > Ness and Stone enter the station; Ness takes his place on the upper floor, where he can see the entrance at eye level, and the stairs and some of the platform below him. Stone goes round the corner to cover a place where Ness instructs him.
- > A lot of people enter the station; there are a few suspicious looking people that could be a gangster who is part of Al Capone's gang or the bookkeeper himself.
- Ness keeps an eye on all of them. A woman is coming up from the platform but is struggling with her cases and the pram. She cant get them up the stairs easily,
- Ness keeps looking between her and the possible suspects, eventually he leaves his vantage point and goes down the stairs to help the woman. All the suspects by now have been cleared off suspicion by (for example) going off with their wives or not staying on the platform.
- Ness pulls the pram up the stairs, the woman thanks him continuously, while he pulls the pram up Ness looks out for gangsters.
- Ness has had his eye on some people who may be gangsters, as he reaches the top of the stairs he looks behind him and sees a man he recognizes, the man has a broken nose that is strapped up.
- Ness pulls a shotgun out of his jacket and shoots the man - killing him. The pram gets knocked by Ness and starts to roll down the stairs. Other men who are standing on the stairs reach into their jackets and pull out guns, Ness shoots another in the shoulder, and kills another, one gangster shoots up at him from the bottom of stairs and takes cover behind a pillar.
The pram continues to fall down the stairs; the man who got shot in the shoulder shoots wildly and hits the pram. Two Sailors run up the stairs form the platform and get shot as they run in front of the pram.
Stone comes running across the bottom of the stairs, throws Ness a new gun as Ness's had run out of bullets, kills the man behind the pillar slides across the floor, stops the pram falling and aims his gun at the last remaining gangster (the one who got shot in the shoulder) who is holding his gun against the bookkeeper's head.
Ness demands that the gangster lets the bookkeeper go and no one gets hurt. The gangster who is very agitated shouts that him and the bookkeeper are leaving and if anyone moves he will shoot the bookkeeper and then they have nothing against Capone. The bookkeeper nervously says he will tell them all they want to know. There is more arguing until Ness signals to Stone and Stone shoots the gangster in the head, the gangster slumps to the floor and the bookkeeper scared witless remains unharmed. I am now going to talk about the use of different camera angles and camera movement and how they are used and why. The most commonly used camera angle was a high angle shot.
The majority of these would have been Ness's view from the overhang looking down on the stairs and the platform. This angle would have been by the director, Brian De Palma used to draw the audience into the position of Ness making it more real for them as if they were there, therefore raising the suspense as they feel part of the scene. However a lot of low angle shots are also used, many of these are looking up at Ness, this may the audience think there is someone possibly a gangster looking up at Ness from below this would also raise suspense. The angle would also have been used to show Ness's facial expressions and where he is looking.
Occasionally there were close ups of Ness to really show his facial expressions and bring the audience as close as possible to him and how he is feeling, this would add the suspense as again they feel attached to the scene like they are there. These camera angles from Ness's perspective and looking at him happen while he is standing on the overhang when he moves down the stairs to help the baby and then gets involved in the shootout, there are different camera angles focusing on him although there are more close ups after he leaves the overhang.
While Ness helps the woman with the pram most of the camera angles are low ones looking up at him as he climbs the stairs and some down at him and past him to show what he is doing and what is going on below him on the platform. The high angle shots that look down at him and past him are most effective at creating suspense because they show Ness's nervousness and at any moment a gangster could appear below him while he is unaware. While the shootout is happening there are various Close up shots.
This is to show the expressions of the combatants and how they are being affected by the shootout. This is very tense as there is a lot of anxiousness and fear on the faces of everyone as they are fighting for their lives. This is particularly the case when there is a close up of the woman diving to save her baby from falling down the stairs as you can see all of her face close up and you can se the fear written on it even though there is no sound at that point.
There are also a lot of long shots and two shots to display the action and what is going on at eye level so it is straight in front of you, this makes you as the audience feel very involved in the action as your eye level is with the action you are not looking down on or up at it, as it is in front of your face, and as the action is very dangerous it adds greatly to the suspense in the scene. At the start of the scene the clock was repeatedly shown, this repetitive image added to the suspense greatly as it showed clearly that time is running out for Ness as months of work depend on the next few moments.
As the clock is repeatedly shown this fact is driven into us, raising suspense as we wait to see if Ness will get his man in time. Next I will look at lighting and what areas are lit and why. The scene is set quite late at night at 10 O Clock, so the lighting would be artificial from the lights in the station which the director would have strategically shone them in different areas for different reasons, which I will talk about now. Very light areas of the scene were the stairs and the entryway, this is because the majority of the action happened there and it was the focus of where Ness was looking at.
The platform area is also quite well lit, as it is another area Ness was constantly looking for gangsters in. Dark areas of the scene were Stone was as not much happened there and he was meant to be hidden from sight. The prams was very well lit during the scene as it is meant to signify innocence and the pram protecting the baby, giving it safety, and in the dark things are generally more uneasy and unsafe especially for young children so the light is to signify it is protected.
Sometimes the camera swung/panned around the scene for example in the shootout, this gave us as the audience a chance to survey what is going on from and move as if we are moving in the scene to look what is going on, like if we cant quite see something we would move to see it, the camera moving us gives us that feeling. As we feel like we are there yet again this creates more suspense for us as an audience.
Next I am going to talk about sound, and how dialogue. Sound effects, ambient sound and non-digetic sounds are used and why they are used. First I will explain what each sound is:
- Dialogue - Words spoken on screen by characters. Dialogue is used to develop characters, the plot and display natural communication.
- Sound effects - Non-verbal sounds from an action. Sound effects are used to reinforce an action and too add realism. For example if someone closed a door and you couldn't hear it close, it would sound fake, and ruin the effect.
- Ambient sounds - realistic background sound, which may not be on screen.Ambient sounds are also used to reinforce realism for example if the scene is in a field and no wind is heard, or birds calling it would seem fake, similar to sound effects but the effect may not be on screen, e. g. a bird calling, the bird may not be on screen.
- Non-digetic sounds - Not part of the scene. Non digetic sounds are things like music or voice overs, they are used to create or reinforce a mood or can intensify a situation, for example eerie music could be used in a haunted house, getting eerier as things get tenser. This reinforces the atmosphere being created off screen.
All the different four sound types are used in the scene. The most commonly used sound was non-digetic. Almost throughout the scene there was music playing. It changed as the scene changed, for example at the end of the scene just after the final gangster was killed there were piano and violins playing together, they played in such a way that a mysterious feeling was given. Then when we realized the gangster was dead and the bookkeeper survived the tense music ended with a long note, which eased the tension. This is a prime example of music (non digetic sound) enforcing the atmosphere that is created on stage.
Another widely used ambient sound was the tannoy announcer; altogether he spoke 4 times in the space of a few minutes. He was announcing that the train would be leaving in a few minutes, all board and last call, this also drummed into us as the audience that time was running out therefore creating suspense - similarly to the clock. Sound effects were not used to much important in my view they were just used to reinforce actions like the footsteps on the stairs. However when the pram was going up the steps it made a very loud crashing sound, louder then it would naturally, this created suspense.
Ambient sounds similarly to sound effects only were occasionally used to reinforce the fact the scene is in a train station, with the odd sound adding to the realism, like the train steaming out of the train off camera occasionally, this added to the suspense as it made the scene more realistic and made us as the audience feel as if we were there. There wasn't much dialogue in the scene; most of it was just basic the only important dialogue was at the very end between ness, the gangster and the bookkeeper when they were arguing over the fate of the bookkeeper.
This was very important as the gangster and Ness were trying to play mind games with each other through words. Words are the clearest form of communication and in this instance, you could obviously see through the expression in the voices that Ness was in control and the gangster was wavering and unsure what to do, and in the end was killed. This added to the suspense as the camera angles were close to them and the speech was loud as if we as the audience were there and witnessing it. In conclusion I would say that the factor that contributed most to the suspense was the sound as it was the clearest factor of all, and is the most blatant.
For example if there is music playing that is of a tense nature it is obvious something tense is going on and it adds to the tension. When the pram like music was playing it added to the realism, as there was a pram there. It also gave the audience a false sense of security, as it is nice happy carefree music in a sinister important ten minutes in Chicago. It also it spookily scary, as when the pram is stopped from crashing by stone the music starts up and there are lots of dead bodies and blood everywhere and a fierce confrontation between Ness and the gangster is about to start and the music starts to play.
Camera angles added to the tension and suspense more then the lighting, though it was more subtle then the sound as only when you reflect on the scene in depth like I have done you realize it has done anything, during the scene you don't even realize what the camera angles are doing. There is only a certain amount of suspense that you can create with a camera angle as just because you are looking at something in a certain way it doesn't mean something will happen.
Lighting was the least important factor as the entire scene had to be quite lit as it is a well it area in a train station, and just because something is in shadow doesn't mean it is hidden and secretive. Again it is a more subtle use of suspense and one that I think doesn't add to the suspense much if at all. Generally I would say that suspense was created very well using lighting, sound and camera angles. It could perhaps been improved by a greater use of lighting to display shadows and hidden areas, though it would have been hard to do so in a station.
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Feeling of Suspense in the Station Scene from the film ‘The Untouchables’. (2017, Aug 14). Retrieved from https://phdessay.com/feeling-suspense-created-station-scene-film-untouchables/
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