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A Shot by Shot Breakdown of the Bloodiest Scene from Brian De Palma's 'The Untouchables'

The UntouchablesBreaking down the cinematography and editing used in a film is a great first step in learning how to not only measure pacing and establish tone, but to understand important cinematic techniques and how they communicate to audiences. In this exhaustive analysis of Brian De Palma’s American crime drama The Untouchables, Antonios Papatoniou breaks down the very bloody, very pivotal “Union Station” scene shot by shot, noting every shot size, length, lens, and camera movement in order to take a closer look at how the use of POV adds depth and tension to an already intense scene.

Perhaps one of the first things you might notice about this scene is that it pays a very obvious homage to the “Odessa Steps” scene from Russian filmmaking legend Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. And because it’s such an obvious homage, it adds a new angle and dimension to analyzing the scene. So, as I watched it, I thought about the political and moral themes from Battleship Potemkin – the strain between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, innocence and oppression, and how these things factored into the narrative of The Untouchables.

Here’s the “Odessa Steps” sequence from Battleship Potemkin.

Another thing I’d pay particular attention to is time. We see several “time” motifs, like the setting (train stations are all about keeping time), the clock on the wall and the child in the carriage (though this is a nod to Potemkin, children and babies, as well as the elderly, often represent “time” or the lack thereof in films). Furthermore, since time is playing such a huge role in this scene, it’s a pretty safe bet that special attention was paid to the pacing of it, too, meaning that the editing had to be incredibly precise to capture the pressure and tension of Eliot Ness’ waiting. (Take special note of the duration of each shot!)

There is so much to learn from this scene alone! Check out Antonios Papatoniou’s analysis below, and then scroll down for some tips on how to do your own shot by shot breakdown.

Shot lists are so incredibly helpful; I can’t stress that enough. Many times when you’re trying to analyze a movie, it’s easy to get distracted and become completely engrossed in the story if you don’t have a structure to your study. Setting aside some time to intentionally go shot by shot through a scene, writing down everything from the shot size to the camera movement, will help you understand films on a structural level.

If you need some tips on how to construct one, I’d suggest making an outline, as well as a storyboard, that lists each shot of your selected scene by number. There are so many things you can analyze in any given shot, but a few basic items would be:

  • Shot duration
  • Shot size (Wide Shot (WS), Medium Shot (MS), Close Up (CU), etc.)
  • Camera angle (low, high, eye-line, canted/ “Dutch”)
  • Camera movement (pan, dolly, tracking, handheld, crane, fixed)
  • Camera lens (telephoto, wide-angle, anamorphic)
  • Action (What’s key things are happening in this shot?)

The Untouchables 2

Time is figuratively and visually on Eliot Ness’ mind throughout the first half of this scene.

A quick note: If I don’t know what kind of lens is being used, I just write down whether the shot has a shallow or deep depth of field, since that’s the bulk of what I’m looking for in finding out what kind of lens is being used. Furthermore, I always leave space to take notes on aesthetic things that stick out to me, but as you start doing your own shot lists, you’re going to learn quickly what information is most helpful to you.

What did you think of the shot analysis of The Untouchables? Does creating shot lists and storyboards help you learn more about cinematography, editing, and/or the whole filmmaking shebang? How do you analyze scenes? Let us know in the comments below!

[via Antonios Papantoniou]


We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

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  • Great piece to study. Funny though, the still pulled was by far my least favorite shot in there. It felt way too close being such a wide lens that it didn’t follow the rest of the piece.

    • That was a wide lens, you can tell by the distorted curved background and depth of field. It was probably around an18-21mm or so and was used intentionally to give the surreal look of what was happening in the scene, brilliant IMO and is what separates the good and the greats.

      • I didn’t ask if it was a wide lens, I know it is a wide lens. I think it was a poor choice since the one shot sticks out so much from the rest.

        • That was the point, though, wasn’t it? It was supposed to stick out. Intentionally breaking from an established formula automatically indicates, at least to me, subconsciously, that something is important. It draws me in even more.

          • Of course something is important; he is in the middle of a shoot out. But there is nothing in particular about what this shot is covering that makes the wider lens the right choice. A longer lens from further back would have not broken the moment.

            I’d concede this is a nitpick but if we’re studying it so closely, I’ll make notes about the minute.

  • I love informative posts but I think over analyzing shots like these which are simply continuous shots broken up in edits rather than frame specific pieced shots, are somewhat of a theorist hobby in my opinion. I remember listening to a movie geeks podcast where one of Stanley Kubrick’s cinematographers was interviewed. He said people were over exaggerating and worshipping the cinematography and attention to detail, even going to the extent of reading double meanings/hidden meanings into the shots when it was not the case. They just instinctively winged it sometimes and decided on camera placement as it related to the space of the set and mood of scene. No overt psycho analyzing

    • I agree people can go overboard. However, no one makes an artistic decision without first having human emotions and thoughts. So, the product of how they see and interpret the world comes out in their work whether they intend for it to do so or not.

      Even if I’m way off on that observation, I’ll analyze the hell out of scenes because it’s fun…and educational…and will give me ideas for my own projects. In other words, I win x3!

    • Hi t. cal,

      do you remember the name of the cinematography?

    • Hi t. cal,

      do you remember the name of the cinematographer?

    • t. cal – there’s always a danger of over-analysing things, but I don’t think this strays into that territory. Any filmmaker worth their salt should – at some point – break down the work of the people he/she admires and learn something about the way they cover a scene. Seem to remember that John McTiernan says he did it with Verhoeven’s The Fourth Man (to the extent of storyboarding either the whole thing, or certain scenes) to learn about the way he moved the camera and the angles/shot sizes he chose.

      Thanks Antonios for taking the time to do this – must have taken ages…!

      • Definitely. But it’s not necessary. It should be left to theorists. Filmmakers should not be obsessed with breaking it down on a frame by frame basis as the frames we see in the final edit are pieced together in the cutting room. Rather there’s lots of things we skip such as appropriate pacing and shot type relative to scene and script requirements. The story beat which should drive blocking and most importantly blocking which is missing from lots of indies/beginners. These are practical filmmaking techniques that separate indies from the majors. It doesn’t matter if you watch transformers or a Michael haneke film, these elements are there. Indies often focus on looking and sounding “professional” and hence resort to focusing a lot on story board approach than understanding blocking as it relates to your set There’s nothing wrong with analysis such as these but they belong more on the theory section of a film theory curriculum than a dedicated cinematography section of an afi

        • We’ll agree to disagree! But I think you’re right in part – most of us low-budget filmmakers need to learn more about blocking scenes effectively and economically. Hollywood Camera Work do a good set of DVDs to get you started – or there’s the book ‘The Grammar of the Film Language’.

          • Well I’ll agree with you here a million percent. Hollywood camera work’s two courses on blocking changed my life tremendously. It was one of those things I looked for my entire life.every filmmaker should check out their courses especially two of them on blocking. I’ve noticed in many major films from the so called artsy to popcorn flicks that they often block according to story beats and characters cross the 180 degree lines based on resolutions made and cameras react accordingly. Most indies are stale. The camera just sits there and acts like a theatre viewer and when they dolly or slide, it’s often very 2 dimensional. But thanks for the other book mention. I’ll check it out. What does it cover in a nutshell?

          • – The book is just a LOT of blocking diagrams and a few breakdowns of classic scenes. I read it about 10 years ago, and there was a lot of useful stuff in it then (though I think the Hollywood Camera Work stuff is more useful). There’s also a good book on Spielberg – think it might be Poetics of the Contemporary Blockbuster. Can get a bit dry, but there’s loads of good stuff in it on his blocking style.

            If anyone is thinking of going the Hollywood Camera Work route, make sure you pay him for it – he’s put a hell of a lot of work in, and the funds from it help support his family. Think you can stream each volume for $10, so it’s nothing…

          • That is so true! Lots of work went into it. Let’s support those that enlighten us. No bootleg downloads

          • My blocking got better once I got rid of the camera entirely and focused on learning about acting. Learning how to tell the story through performance alone makes you consider blocking very carefully.

    • It is a textbook example on use of the film language (you can find it in Daniel Erijons “Grammar of the film language”) in positioning the camera, camera angles, use of the bipolar organization of space (I probably said it wrong – I’m translating the term from my language), etc…

      As a matter of fact, my professor used it as a example in his class ;)

      And I agree with the statement that it was a bit over-analyzed.

  • Is it too much to ask that the Cinematographer, Stephen H. Burum, ASC, get some credit too? I’m pretty sure he had something to do with it as well…

  • Barber Longstreet on 05.22.14 @ 6:31AM

    Good piece in timing but it always disturbs me that the position of Ness on top of the stairs is changing.

  • Did anyone else notice that Costner reaches the top of the stairs at 6:40 but is shown immediately after at 6:50 to be at the previous platform that he already passed? Hahaha!

  • Barber Longstreet on 05.28.14 @ 4:59PM

    The Shot Breakdown shows the many mistakes, bad acting and timing of this scene. Very good to show this thing. Continuation of the shots, that’s hard work.

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  • In a certain scene in the movie, after an accountant was assigned from washington and first seen in mr.ness’s office, mr. ness gets out of the room and walks towards Malone (sean connery), then they appear at a church talking,
    at first the camera is below, in the middle, shooting upwards,
    then the camera switches to side view,
    at that scene, there appears to be two different focus point, one is at very close, on ness’s eye, and another focus point on malone’s face,
    there is also a blurry part around ness’s head,
    how can they shoot such a scene, is there a special lens that can acquire two different focus points or do they shoot twice and merge the films together?

    I have seen the same trick in Reservoir Dogs(Tarantino version). I dont remember the exact scene but it was much more noticable, it almost had a line in the middle of the screen, but in the one i described above, the transition is very smooth