Analysis of the Union Station shoot-out in 'The Untouchables'

The Union Station shoot-out scene in The Untouchables (1987) is probably the most stand-out scene within the movie.

The scene shows the main protagonists Ness and Stone finding Al Capone’s book-keeper Walter Payne guarded by several gangsters. A gunfight breaks out on the lobby steps, resulting in the gangsters being killed and Payne being captured.

The action begins with Ness turning and seeing one of the gangsters drawing a machine gun. He shoots and kills the gangster. At the same time, the woman beside him lets go of her pram, which sets off one cinema’s most effective gunfight scenes. What follows is very carefully choreographed.

Ness identifies a second gangster drawing a gun from beneath his coat, takes aim, shoots and kills him. While, at the same time, Ness’s partner Stone runs through an upper floor of the station towards the steps, Ness accidentally brushes against the pram, sending it down the steps, and we see the baby reacting as the pram moves through the frame.

A third gangster, standing beside the crouching Payne, has also drawn a gun and is shooting at Ness, who shoots back wounding him, drops his shotgun and draws a handgun from inside his coat. As the same time, a fourth gangster at the foot of the stairs aims a machine gun at Ness, but is shot from above by Stone. Simultaneous with this action, the mother reaches out after the pram, which continues rolling down the steps.

Ness sees the pram and runs after it down the steps. At the same time, the wounded gangster shoots at Ness, killing a bystander and a sailor in the cross-fire, and Ness is confronted by a fifth gangster standing beside a pillar at the foot of the steps. Again, simultaneous with this action, we see the pram rolling down the steps and the baby’s reaction as the pram moves through the frame.

Ness is now under fire from two directions and trying the save the pram and baby. A second sailor gets killed in the crossfire while trying to stop the pram. Ness runs out of ammunition. The pram continues rolling down the steps. Stone runs towards the steps, throws Ness a gun and slides along the floor, just in time to catch the pram as it reaches the bottom step.

Ness shoots and kills the fifth gangster, and the scene ends with Ness leaning over the pram looking at the baby and Stone lying on the floor beneath the pram, while aiming his gun at the last gangster.

The sequence, which lasts for 2 minutes 15 seconds and contains 105 edits, uses slow motion to help increase the perception of duration within the scene, over-lap shots and shows simultaneous events happening to the various characters within the scene. As a result, an otherwise short event has been stretched out and lengthened for dramatic purposes.

I think there are a number of reasons why this sequence is so effective in expanding time.

Slow motion – Time has been manipulated as a result of filming at a higher frame rate. Increasing the frame rate from 24 fps to 48 fps, for instance, would double the screen time in which the action takes place. As a result, we experience every movement in more detail, both actions and reactions.

Over-lapping shots – We are also drawn into the action as a result of over-lap shots. For example, shots 1, 3 & 5 of the gangster watching Ness and the woman approach the top of the steps are over-lapped with shots 2 & 4 of Ness and the woman walking towards the top of the steps. These over-laps continue as the action at the tops of the steps unfolds, with shots 6 & 8 of Ness taking aim at and shooting the gangster over-lapping with shots 7 & 9 of the gangster getting shot.

Simultaneous events – The pram is the magic ingredient in the sequence. Ness’s accidental brush against the pram’s handle sets in motion a parallel line of action to the gun fight. Now, not only are we wondering how Ness will cope with the gangsters, but we are also left wondering what will happen to the baby in the pram. These two simultaneous events are carefully woven together, so that the gun fight follows the pram’s path down the steps. So we are now rooting for the survival of both Ness and the baby. For example, shots 14, 21 & 23 of one the gangsters at the top of the steps over-lapped with shots 15, 18, 20 & 22 of Ness are all over-lapped with shots 16, 17 & 19 of the pram rolling down the steps.

Shot sizes – Most of the shots within the sequence are Medium Close Up and Close Up, such as Ness taking aim, a gangster getting shot, the woman reaching out after the pram, and the baby in the pram. These shot sizes help direct the viewer’s attention to specific key areas of the action. There are also a few wide shots, which help the viewer maintain a sense of the geography within the location and locate the physical relationships of the characters as they move through the scene. For example, shot 24, halfway down the steps looking up at the action; and shot 93 at the foot of the steps as Stone makes a dive for the pram.


I particularly like the way in which the Union Station sequence refers to the ‘Odessa Steps’ sequence in Eisenstein’s ‘Battleship Potempkin’. This is particularly clear in the way it uses shots of a baby in a pram and reaction shots of different characters to engage the viewer with the unfolding action.

Reverse-engineering the Union Station shoot-out in this way has been an eye-opener for me. It’s a great way of seeing how a sequence like this has been put together, both in terms of framing and editing.