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Suspense & Tension . . . On The Steps With The Untouchables

I’m taking a brief respite from my blogging break and writing schedule to weigh in for my good buddy Mystery Man’s Blog-A-Thon! . . . he wants us to write about scenes of tension and suspense, what makes them work and why.

Warning. What follows is some serious story wonk.

Let’s assume you know the basics of a scene, right? Just like a comedian has to know what a setup and a punchline is, a good writer needs to know the base mechanics of how a scene works . . . I covered some of this in The Prestige, The Reveal and the Head-Fake but let’s just posit that learning a tricky jab-cross-bob-uppercut in a boxing class does one no good if you don’t know how to punch from the hip, likewise serious story wonkage does one no good if you don’t have at least a basic understanding of structure, character and motivation.

Okay, we said that. Now then.

I was originally going to write about Tom Cruise Dangling in the film Mission Impossible (great title, too, right? Tom Cruise Dangling) and after some thought, I realized that there was a much better example from another De Palma film that illustrated more clearly what I feel elevates a good suspense scene to greatness.

That scene is, of course, the elaborate gunfight on the steps of the train station in The Untouchables (1987).


For those of you who live in a box and haven’t seen the film, here’s a recap. I’m going to show the scene as well, but it’s good to get the basic beats down in black and white.

Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) waits at a train station. He has information that Al Capone is sending the bookkeeper out of town on a specific train. The bookkeeper is the one guy who can put Capone away. Ness got the information from his mentor, Malone (Sean Connery) who died right afterward. This is what we know going into the scene.

Ness and his partner Stone (Andy Garcia) wait for Capone’s hoods to bring the bookkeeper. There’s only the two of them. Cops are no help. there’s no one else. Just the two of them. Stone goes to the other side of the station to wait. Ness stands on top of the stairs, by the doors. Alone. Staring at the clock. Knowing they’re coming. And knowing he’s probably outnumbered and outgunned.

A young mother struggles to get her baby carriage up the steps of the station. After watching, Ness finally steps out and helps her up the steps. As he does, two thugs enter. Walk down the steps. Stand guard at the bottom.

Ness registers them. They don’t know him. Another thug enters. Stands in the middle of the stairs. Ness nears the top of the steps. Another thug enters with the bookkeeper. They don’t recognize him, either. Ness stops at the top with the baby carriage, knowing the time has come to act, but not ready.

One more thug enters. A thug with a broken nose. A nose that Ness, in fact, broke. Ness turns. Thug recognizes him.

It’s on.

Ness whips out a shotgun. Shoots broken nose thug. Swivels. Shoots the thug with the bookkeeper. Bookkeeper runs down the stairs.

The baby carriage, with baby inside, teeters. Goes down the steps.

Ness wounds the third thug. Throws the shotgun away. Pulls out his pistol.

One of thugs at the bottom of the steps fires a tommy-gun. Stone, from the far side of the station, kills him. Stops the bookkeeper from running away.

The young mother screams. Ness looks at the the wounded thug. Looks at the careening baby carriages. Makes a choice. Goes to save the baby. Wounded thug kills a couple of sailors also trying to save the baby.

Last thug at the bottom of the steps fires at Ness. Bullets whiz over baby. Ness fires at him. Thug ducks behind a pillar.

The baby carriage is almost at the bottom, sure to spill over.

Ness empties his revolver. No more bullets. Thug smiles, steps out to shoot Ness.

Stone appears, tosses Ness another pistol, slides on the floor, puts a foot out to stop the carriage, saving the baby.

Ness shoots the Thug at the bottom of the stairs. He and Stone turn their weapons on the last one, wounded thug, who has the bookkeeper as his hostage. Wounded thug says he’s walking out with the bookkeeper. If they don’t let him walk, he’s gonna shoot the bookkeeper right there. He’s gonna count to three. Bookkeeper blubbers.

Ness, now full in control, lowers his gun. Asks Stone if he has him.

“I got him,” Stone says. Cool. Calm.

“One,” says thug.

“Take him,” Ness says.

Thug opens his mouth to say “two” and Stone shoots him right in the tonsils.

Pretty cool sequence, as I described it, right? If you wish to watch it, here’s the full scene:

Okay, it’s a great scene, but WHY is it so great, what makes it work so well? I mean, De Palma is a master visual artist, no doubt, and the sound and the editing are top notch, but one can assume he brought the same talents to the stinker films he’s directed as well . . . what makes this work?

The film SHOOT ‘EM UP had some fantastic battle sequences, but ultimately left us wanting. Why does this scene (arguably the most important scene in the film, the high point) work as well as it does?

Basically, the script by David Mamet. Okay, what he wrote and how he wrote. And De Palma’s invention, (see comment by Todd below for more on Mamet’s contribution to this scene.) Okay, you want more, right?

Here’s what I posit. There’s going to be a lot of people writing about the importance of visuals, beats, etc, when it comes to suspense in the cinema, and those are indeed important, but there’s a few things that I feel often get overlooked, and they are more important, in my small opinion.

They are:

1) Context
2) Character
3) Expectations.

1) Context.

I think this often gets overlooked when folks talk about action or suspense scenes, and to me it’s of top importance.

In my mind, context is the interrelation of what HAS happened, what IS happening and what MAY happen.

The scene above works as an action sequence, but if you began the movie with it, or viewed it without seeing the rest of the film, it wouldn’t have nearly the power it does. Mainly because of what we know going into the scene. The context, as it were.

As I said, we know when Ness is standing there he’s all alone except for Stone. We know the cops are crooked. We also know that two of his team were killed by Capone, and that every move he’s made against Capone, Capone has matched it by killing one of his men. His mentor died getting this information for Ness. This is his last shot, so to speak. If they don’t get the bookkeeper, they have no case and no chance, and Malone’s life was lost for nothing.

By this point, Ness has killed just one man, and rather unwillingly at that. Five armed men walk in. Five. He’s only shot one guy in his life and he didn’t want to do that. Now he’s got five, and Stone’s nowhere to be seen.

Plus, he’s holding a baby carriage.

Keep in mind, up to this point, Ness has basically failed at what he’s tried so far. Any success he’s had against Capone has been because of Malone. Malone knew where to bust a brewery. Malone led the charge in Canada. Malone got the Capone squealer to talk. Malone got the information about the bookkeeper. Whenever Ness acted on his own, he failed. Now Malone is dead.

That’s a frigging important context to this scene. Ness has never prevailed on his own against anyone, as of yet. And you can see it, on his face, when he’s looking at the clock, when he’s watching the thugs walk in, you can feel it.

Which leads us to-

2) Character.

As I’ve mentioned many a time, in my mind character is story. People don’t really watch movies because of what happens, rather they watch them for WHO they happen to. Of course, it needs to be cool stuff that happens, but at the end of the day, if they don’t care about the characters*, they don’t care what happens to the characters.

As I wrote in Rapping On Writing - Emotional Content, a character’s choices need to be rooted in emotional logic.

Up until this point in the film, Ness has been a by-the-book lawman, someone who looks on the law as writ in stone. His battle with Capone has taken him to a place he’s never thought he’d go, and keep in mind what happened previous to this particular scene.

Malone asked him with his last breath, “what are you prepared to do?” meaning, are you willing to fight Capone on Capone’s terms? Are you willing to go all the way?

We know this, and going into this scene, we wonder if he can. Ness wonders, too, and even more importantly, he knows that if he doesn’t, he’ll lose. Lose everything. So he’s got everything at stake, it’s simply life or death, and those are the highest emotional stakes of all.

This scene, as a matter of fact, represents a shift for Ness, after this scene he takes control and defeats Capone the Chicago way (even tossing Frank Nitti off a building).

Up until this point, Ness hasn’t chosen to be dominant. Up until this point, he hasn’t fired first, he hasn’t drawn first blood. One the broken-nosed Thug recognizes him, Ness makes the first move. We’re seeing Ness be a killer to defeat killers.

And once Ness lowers the gun and tells Stone to take him, we’re seeing him make a deliberate, dominant choice in a way we haven’t yet, and audiences like that. We’ve wanted him to take the gloves off all movie, and when he does, it’s extremely satisfying. And pretty awesome.

Ness’s dilemma is the classic human one we all face in terms of good vs evil, right vs wrong, which resonates with us all. We’ve all been the apple-cheeked innocent at one point, and we all eventually learn something from the school of hard knocks.

Plus, Ness’s failure and public humiliation resonates. We’ve been there. We want him to rise above, which leads us to-

3) Expectations.

The real key to suspense and tension is expectations. In simpler terms, when watching a scene, it’s either what we WANT to happen or DON’T want to happen. The space before that supplies the tension, which can be pleasant or unbearable or both. When expectations are met or exceeded, then the audience is released, and with release, comes either pleasure or more tension.

A lot of drama comes from tension, and a lot of comedy, when you think about it. Comedy is all about tension versus expectation. And so is suspense. How is our hero going to deal with the shitstorm heading their way? We want them to prevail but we’re afraid that they won’t.

Context and character set up expectation. You can’t really have one without the other, and in this instance, with the scene from the Untouchables, they meet perfectly. We as an audience knows Ness has had his ass kicked by Capone’s men up to this point.

On a visual level, remember that Costner was fairly unknown at the time of this film . . . the two biggest stars in it were Robert DeNiro and Sean Connery. DeNiro just had Connery killed. The two guys left were not famous. DeNiro is totally believable as a hood, and killed one of his own men with a bat.

Context. Ness knows he has to go bloody. Doesn’t want to. We want him to, but we don’t know Costner, we don’t really know for certain he’ll make it, Christ, they just killed James Bond, for crying out loud.

Costner and the unknown Andy Garcia** make it work, defeat the gang, take the bookkeeper and see Capone go to the big house.

Now let’s talk about one last thing about this scene, one very important visual aspect of the tension. The baby.

That’s right, the baby carriage, going down the steps (which is a homage to the great Russian film, BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN***) right in the middle of a gun fight. Let’s talk about that, shall we?

What’s the difference between the baby in The Untouchables and the baby being lugged around in SHOOT ‘EM UP? I mean, in the scene above, we were shitting ourselves, right? We were scared for the baby.

In SHOOT ‘EM UP, we yawned.

Herein lies one the main reasons this scene works so well. Our expectations is that we have no idea what may happen to the baby, none at all. The baby could get hit, it could happen. We don’t know.

Think about it in context of the entire movie. What’s the very first scene in the film? Little girl, picking up a tin of beer for her folks at the neighborhood bar. Sees a hood leave a briefcase, picks it up. Says, “Mister, you forgot your-”


Whole place blows. They killed a little girl! In the very first scene, Mamet and De Palma show us that everyone is in danger, even children. They don’t care, they’ll kill anyone. No one is safe in this movie.

Later, when the same man (Billy Drago) hangs out and threatens Ness’s family, you feel it because it could happen. He’s done it before, he’ll probably do it again.

And when they start killing cops?

The nicest, most harmless member of Ness’s Untouchables, Charles Martin Smith, is the first to go. And he goes bloody.

Then frigging James Bond gets tommy-gunned. They killed James Bond, and the second most famous guy in the movie!

Hear me? By this point in the film, we’re jazzed up to believe that anything could happen, when it comes to the baby. Maybe they’re sick enough, actually sick enough, that they’d actually do it. Even when it goes down, they plug a couple of innocent sailors in the back. [UPDATE: I watched the scene again, and not only do Costner and one Thug shoot right over the baby carriage, several bullets from Wounded Thug actually hit the carriage itself, and one can argue that a sailor took a bullet for the baby at least once . . . so they weren’t playin’, that kid could have bought it] So who knows?

I think that’s a key element to some of the great suspense movies. They show you what has happened and what may happen. And something you’re wary of, as a viewer, is some of those may-happen possibilities, right?

Remember when Hannibal Lector escaped in Silence of the Lambs? We saw him take out those two cops (bit one in the face, maced and beat the other to death) and downstairs, waiting with the SWAT team, we saw the elevator go wrong.

And we got afraid. Because we didn’t know what was going to happen, but we were pretty sure it was going to be something terrible. And we wanted it but at the same time, we didn’t. Downstairs, with the SWAT team, we all had terrible expectations of what awaited above. That’s suspense. That’s tension.

Make sense? If not, you may have to read this whole thing again - LOL!

Too often we see a movie and we can tell just from who’s cast as who, who will live and who will die. So where’s the suspense in that? (on the other hand, LA CONFIDENTIAL went the opposite direction and it worked real well, one of my favorite movies).

I can think of a recent popular movie, second or third in a series, that had yet another sword fight in it. A long fight that involved more than two people, covered lots of distance. And while brilliantly staged and shot fine and the dialogue witty and entertaining, at no point were we ever afraid that someone was going to get stabbed by a sword.

It wasn’t established as something that could happen. In fact, quite the opposite, many a sword fight happens throughout the series and no one we know gets stabbed. Think of how many action movies you’ve seen where thousands of bullets are fired back and forth and NO ONE gets hit.

After awhile, we believe no one will ever get hit, and thus, the bullets have no meaning.

And without that possibility, why am I watching? Without expectations . . . Where’s the tension, where’s the suspense?

Why fight if someone can’t get hurt? What do I expect might happen? What do I wish had happened? If I know what’s going to happen before it happens, and I don’t care when it happens, you’ve lost your suspense and tension.

How do we get them to care?

Again, for me it comes back to expectations and context. An elaborately staged action scene may look cool but it means nothing to an audience if it means nothing to the characters involved within, unless they’re emotionally invested in the action, unless they’re feeling the tension, we won’t be able to. It will end up as empty sound and fury, signifying nothing.

We’ve all seen movies like that. SHOOT ‘EM UP was one such example (compare that with CHILDREN OF MEN, an excellent film with some amazing tension within as well). Think about movies that do it badly.

That’s not to say that staging, acting, shot selection, visual effects, sound, etc, that none of that matters . . . it does. Absolutely . . . A bad actor or a bad director can fuck up the greatest script (if you don’t believe me, rent the original BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER film).

However, if we don’t CARE about what’s going on or who it’s happening to, then it doesn’t matter how well it’s cast or shot, it’s all for naught. Add to that, we’re all conditioned to understand that there are certain rules in story, we usually walk into a movie with expectations . . . rules can be broken, but if you haven’t established that upfront via character, context and expectationas, then the audience won’t be drawn in.

We watch a kitty sitting in the road, truck bearing down on him, we’re going to assume the cat gets out of the way. Because most of the time, pets are spared and heroes prevail. If you show me that the rules of the film are opposite that, then we’re talking about some super tension, tension because I know not what could happen next. There are things I want to happen, that I hope will happen, and other things that I’m afraid might happen. That’s expectations. That’s suspense.

The scene above has very little dialogue, but one of the reasons it can work so well with little dialogue is due to the actions, words and dialogue that came before it . . . so it doesn’t just work because it’s visual and there are few words. It works because of how it was set up within the context of the entire story and what are fear is of we we expect may happen.

The Untouchables established, right about the gate, that the Chicago way was rough business and no place for any pollyannas, a place where men, women and children are killed at the whim of a hood. Eliot Ness pledged to clean it up. He stuck to that pledge even when his family was threatened and his friends killed. And the film and tension peaked on the steps of the train station, when Eliot Ness finally embraced the Chicago way of doing things. When he did, it met and exceeded my expectations.

And I found it to be an excellent example of tension and suspense in a scene.

Thus endeth the lesson for the day.****

The above is, of course, only my opinion. Nothing more nor less.

Okay, I have to get back to my rewrite now.


*Caring about the character is not the same as liking them. This often gets confused, and it drives me crazy. Characters don’t have to be likeable. We can dislike a character and yet still be drawn into their emotional world, what they’re doing and why. Hannibal Lector is a great example. House, on TeeVee, an extremely unlikeable person (though some may argue Hugh makes him likeable, I disagree, Hugh just makes him fascinating, the people who think House is likeable would be the first folks House would insult in any room at any given time).

**Andy Garcia was originally offered the part of Frank Nitti. He turned it down, asking for Stone. It’s interesting, because Stone has far less lines than Nitti, and Nitti is a big showy part. But Garcia had just played a similar character in another film, and didn’t want to get typecast . . . also, he figured that he’d get to stand around and be seen in many a scene that only had him, Connery and Costner. He figured he’s end up with more screen time when it was done, come off as a good guy, and he was right.

***Originally this battle was supposed to take place on a moving train, but as they got closer to that scene, they couldn’t do it because it cost to dang much. So De Palma restaged it re Potemkin and now it’s the most memorable scene in the film. And do you remember the end of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE? On a moving train. UPDATE: See comment from Todd below, evidently Mamet wasn’t involved in this particular scene.

****Quote from Malone.

20 Responses to “ Suspense & Tension . . . On The Steps With The Untouchables”

  1. terraling Says:

    I’ve missed your writing on writing. Excellent analysis, and, hey!, it’s your blog, if you wanna go on a bit… ;-)

  2. Joshua James Says:


    I know, I know, when it comes to story wonkage, I can sometimes go on all day. My lady just starts rolling her eyes after awhile . . .

  3. Mystery Man Says:

    Man, I agreed with every single word. Great article! Loved it.

  4. Joshua James Says:

    Thanks man!

    Whew, hadn’t done that in awhile . . . heh-heh.

  5. Mystery Man Says:

    There was also a time factor here, that pushed this sequence forward, that is, getting to the carriage before it hits the bottom of the stairs. I’m thinking about writing another article just addressing the use of time in creating tension. I didn’t care for the dialogue in “Children of Men” but that film really impressed upon me how effective a long take can add tension to a sequence. Of course, you can’t really write “do a long take” in a script but you can certainly suggest that when talking with a director. I love long takes. Of course, the ticking bomb is always effective, but a ticking bomb AND a long take like we saw in the opening scene of Orsone Welles’ “Touch of Evil” is supreme cinema.

    The child also brought to mind the ending in Aliens in which Ripley went back for the child. It wasn’t her simply going back for the child under a ticking click. This is about her taking back her own lost innocence, about her facing her fears and what would be the physical embodiment of her fears - the Mother. “Get away from her you BITCH!” Hehehe…


  6. Joshua James Says:

    Absolutely, there are so many elements that helped make this a great sequence, and I didn’t even mention how great the sound is (when it goes, we only hear gunshots and the sound of the carriage going . . . totally awesome) . . . but a ticking clock (we miss it in the clip I have above, but Ness takes several worried looks at the big clock while watching the young mother struggle up the steps before finally giving in and helping her out . . .

    And long takes can really work . . . Children of Men worked so well on bringing the audience IN to the action, we were truly a bug on the windshield for a lot of it, and the long takes made that possible . . . I was just talking with a director about THE PLAYER, a great, great movie, and how Altman used shots in that film, and there’s also quite the clock on that story as well.

    And ALIENS? Don’t get me started on ALIENS, one of my favorite movies of all time!

  7. Todd Alcott Says:

    I’m not sure if you know this or not, but the train station scene in The Untouchables was not, in fact, written by David Mamet. Mamet had a completely different scene in there involving a train-chase sequence, and the project got out of control and there was no money left to shoot the sequence Mamet wrote (as handsome a production as The Untouchables is, it’s budget was not as high as you might imagine). DePalma asked Mamet to write something cheaper, but Mamet was busy shooting House of Games and had no time (or desire) to work more on The Untouchables. DePalma concocted the train-station scene himself as a substitute, and one of the reasons there is no dialogue is because he didn’t want to try to match wits with Mamet, knowing an audience would sense the difference in a second. The result is, as you’ve noted, a one-of-a-kind cinematic moment and a high-water mark for DePalma, who loves concocting and shooting these kinds of nail-biters.

  8. Joshua James Says:

    Hey Todd,

    Cool to hear from you! I did not, in fact, know that about this particular scene (though I do seem to remember reading from an Art Linson book that Mamet was very resistant to doing rewrites and the scene with the bat was a rewrite they forced outa him) . . . I’ll correct it now, thanks!

  9. Todd Alcott Says:

    I’m pretty sure Mamet lays all this out in his introduction to House of Games — either that or in Art Linson’s book A Pound of Flesh, I can’t remember.

  10. Joshua James Says:

    Cool, I’ll check it out again, thanks!

  11. AngelB Says:

    Thanks Joshua! Woohoo for your analysis of the tension and suspense in the great steps scene in THE UNTOUCHABLES!

    I love what you said about caring about a character not being the same as liking a character! That is so true and so important!

    I think one of the reasons that rom coms sometimes get a bad rap is because maybe they need more of this tension and suspense — keeping the audience on the edge of their seats worrying about whether or not the lovesick heroine will end up with her soul mate in the end :)

    I vow to add more tension and suspense to the rom coms I write :)

    Thanks for this, Joshua, MM and all the contributors to this amazing blog-a-thon!

  12. Nya Says:

    Are you going to bill me for reading this blog? It’s like free on-line education. Hey, I know we were forced to watch Battleship Potemkin together, by Bruce…”Film Appreciation” or “Snooze Time” but did we watch The Untouchables together or am I thinking of Platoon?

    Just as the actor has to believe in what he or she is doing, as Stanislavski argued, the writer and the director have to make it possible for the audience to believe the action they see. I think they do that through what you discussed. I would say you have developed The Jamesian-Stanislavskian Theory of Suspense. I love it!

    How’s the kid? Love to him and the missus.

  13. Joshua James Says:

    Can I bill ya? LOL!

    Actually, if memory serves, we saw both movies together . . . you kept doing DeNiro’s baseball bat speech for weeks afterward, heheheh.

    Kid’s great, bro . . . he’s a cheeky little fellow!

  14. RLewis Says:

    I thought this was a really terrific refresher, and I very much appreciate your time, effort and clarity. This does make me think about non-traditional dramatists, and the need to “be different” “challenge convention” “break the formula” “take risks” “avoid the well-made play”, etc. You’ve laid out the paradigm very well; and if you ever feel like writing more, I’d love to read your take on whether there are a/effective ways to do It (build suspense/create tension) differently - only if you find it worthwhile, otherwise just ignore this. Are these rules really made to be broken or is breaking them the reason that so much avant garde work leaves audiences cold?

  15. Joshua James Says:

    Even work that isn’t avant garde leaves the audience cold if the work doesn’t include or consider the audience, that’s my view. Great avant garde work challenges the audience, but so does non-avante garde work.

    The avante guarde work I’ve seen that’s left me cold is the stuff that took me for granted, just like Spiderman 3 took its audience’s love for granted, and as a result I didn’t care about it.

    In the end, it’s about what one is communicating to the audience, I think, and is it a consistent and clear message (even if the message is supposed to be deep and unclear, is it clear about its deep lack of clarity?) that comes to the audience?

    Does that make sense?

  16. jodi Says:

    …and here I was waiting for you to come back. Excellent post. Beautiful analysis. I missed it too.

    and yeah, it makes sense. Thank you :)

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