The Untouchables: Narrative Segmentation
With The Untouchables, director Brian De Palma and writer David Mamet produced an entertaining crime drama that boosted a charismatic cast, an engaging story and a well-structured script. Kevin Costner portrays Elliot Ness, the fresh FBI treasury agent who recruits a small but loyal team of men in his bid to end the crime wave of Al Capone in Prohibition-era Chicago.
1a. Birds-eye view of Al Capone in his hotel suite being shaved, surrounded by men. He’s in the middle of the circle; it’s his world and he’s in full control. Capone here is like a king on his throne.
1b. A bomb goes off in a liqueur store. A little girl is one of the victims. Capone and his gangsters are bringing violence and death to Chicago. It’s a dangerous time. (Sets dramatic situation and establishes danger/threat in the story. Contrasts with Capone’s “civil” behaviour in the previous scene).
1c. Elliot Ness at home in a picturesque setting. He is appalled by the death of the girl and is getting ready to head to work in his new role as a Treasury Agent.
1d. Despite his best intentions, Ness struggles with the questions from the press. He already appears out of his depth and lacking knowledge. (Helps build audience identification with Ness. Though he’s struggling, he wants to do the right thing. We can relate to that)
1e. Ness commands his new team to no longer drink — “If we’re going to enforce the law, we must do first by example”.
1f. His first raid ends in disaster and his embarrassing failure is caught on camera.
1g. The mishap is in the papers. Despondent, he feels ashamed of the note from his wife and throws it away in the river. It’s a bad start. Ness then meets the wise, seasoned Malone who raises his curiosity. (Malone appears almost magically in this scene like an angel coming to help the hero. Interestingly, the scene takes place on a bridge. Ness is indeed at a crossroads, beginning his journey).
1h. A subdued Ness arrives to work. He is being mocked, no one talks to him. He meets the distraught mother of the little girl who was killed. Lost for words, he knows he must do something. Ness pins the negative headline on his empty board. (The board will become a repeated image in the film).
1i. Ness goes off to find Malone. Impressed by Malone from the other night, Ness pitches his plan for a small group of hand-picked men to take on the gangsters. Aware of the danger, Malone “refuses the call”.
1j. At home, Ness is lost in his thoughts.
1k. Back at work the next day, he meets Oscar waiting in his office but is not inspired by the fact that Oscar is an accountant and proposes to catch Capone via Income Tax evasion. As he leaves feeling even more disillusioned, he then bumps into Malone who has changed his mind about joining Ness.
1l. Ness and Malone talk in Church. Malone schools him that he’s going to “need to go all the way” and use “the Chicago way” to get Capone. Ness agrees. (The Church setting is significant in several ways. It underscores the morality of the two characters. The “blood oath” that Malone refers to is not unlike a holy vow).
2a. Malone helps Ness to recruit Stone.
2b. Oscar joins the team. They set off on their first raid which is a success. The Untouchables are born.
2c. Ness is now happy at home with his wife and child.
2d. The Untouchables have a celebratory meal and their picture taken for the press.
2e. Capone kills the mobster who slipped up — sends a threat/message to the other gangsters. (This warns audience of danger ahead for the Untouchables)
2f. Oscar’s research continues to reveal a way to catch Capone. A mobster arrives to bribe the men but they chuck him out the office.
2g. One of Capone’s men, Nealy, threatens Ness about his family but it’s a false alarm. Wife and child are sent away. Malone and Stone arrive to inform Ness of a big shipment of booze coming in. They head off for Canada.
2h. The Untouchables work with the Mounties to raid and catch the gangsters in a rousing set-piece. Even Oscar comes to Stone’s rescue and has a cheeky drink. Thanks to Malone, they manage to convince a surviving gangster to tell them everything.
2i. Ness has a new baby — he believes he has nailed Capone!
2j. Capone is now due to appear the court to testify (a “false victory”). However, the gangster is killed before he can testify, along with Oscar. They have lost not only the chance to get Capone but have lost one of the team. (MidPoint/Point of No Return). After their period of “fun and games”, the threat, danger and challenge of the task is now all too clear. (This will turn out to be a “false defeat).
2k. Ness goes to confront Capone at his hotel. He loses control. Capone says that they’ve got nothing on him. Malone and Capone have no choice but to leave.
2l. Without the witness, the DA says that he will be dropping the case against Capone. It looks like they won’t be get him after all. Stone and Malone are keen to continue, but Ness is now demoralized and demotivated. “I have taken this as far as it can go”.
2m. Malone’s death. (This scene takes place during a dark stormy night — it very much is a literal rendering of “dark night of the soul”). Ness has lost not just another member of the team but also his close friend and mentor. Before he dies, Malone passes on the identity and whereabouts of Capone’s book-keeper. (It’s now up to Ness to commit to change — “what are you going to do?” are Malone’s last words to him).
2n. Ness wastes no time in taking action and heads to the train station to apprehend the gangsters and the book-keeper. “We’ll be there’.
2o. In a life-or-death confrontation, with odds stacked against them, they emerge victorious. They are back in the game and have what they need to bring Capone to justice. (This reworks what happened after Oscar’s death. Ness went to confront Capone but was left defeated. This time, he does the same and, using Malone’s “Chicago Way” approach, is successful)
I find the climatic act of The Untouchables an effective example in demonstrating Blake Synder’s model of the “Five Point Finale”.
3a. Ness, Stone, Judge, Jury etc. are in court to judge Capone. (Gathering of the Team).
3b. Ness removes Nealy from court when he sees he is carrying a gun. (Executing the Plan)
3c. Ness discovers Nealy is Malone’s killer and they have a rooftop chase. Ness eventually catches him. (High Tower Surprise)
3d. After Nealy boasts he will “beat the wrap”, Ness throws him off the building. He has assimilated Malone’s qualities and is committed to “going all the way” to beat Capone. (Dig Deep Down)
3e. Ness presents Nealy’s list of the bribed jury. Jury is switched. Capone is defeated. (Executing New Plan)
3f. Ness walks off into the Chicago streets, which he has helped to make safe. (We opened with a restricted view of the world and Chicago with Capone in charge. Now, Capone has gone and we are shown the city carrying on with life, free from danger)
The Untouchables (1987) - IMDb
Directed by Brian De Palma. With Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Robert De Niro, Charles Martin Smith. During the era of…