Structure: The Untouchables

David Mamet has never equaled the tremendous power of his eighties screenplays. The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Verdict, The Untouchables and even his own directorial debut House of Games, starring his then wife Lindsay Crouse.

The Untouchables has always been my favorite. De Palma turned the script into the most cinematic of Mamet’s writing.


Based on the 1959 TV series, this crime drama takes place during the Prohibition era. It follows the autobiographical accounts of Eliot Ness, played by Kevin Costner and fellow cop Jim Malone’s (Sean Connery) as they bring down Al Capone, played by the sly Robert DeNiro.

The opening scene features the quote “You can get further with a kind word and a gun than just a kind word.” These were Mamet’s own words, about the tough neighborhood he grew up in.


SEQUENCE A: The Law of the Land (15mins)

00.00 Titles
02.30 Capone at the barber’s: 1930, Chicago is city at war.
03.00 Guns are necessary but violence is not good business.
05.00 Bomb kills girl at pub that doesn’t buy from Capone. (=Inc.Inc.)

06.30 Ness at home before work. Wife: You’ll make a good 1st impression.
08.00 Ness: Not just a showpiece program. The law of the land.
09.00 Briefing to the flying squad. Stop drinking! Canadian shipment: raid.
10.30 Preparing raid, waiting. Being married. Journo mistaken for gangster.
13.00 Raid fails. Pic with umbrella. (Capone has insider w/ Police =Call to Adventure)

SEQUENCE B: Hiring the Mentor and Allies (20mins)


15.30 Meeting Malone. First rule of law enforcement: go home alive.
19.00 Capone reads the news, satisfied, schadenfreude.
20.30 Dead girl’s mother comes to see him: You will put a stop to them.
22.30 Goes to visit Malone. He refuses the call. Beat cop, how can I help?
24.30 Ness goes home, listen to radio with wife.
25.30 Wallace: no Capone tax return since ’26. Malone comes in
26.30 Malone comes in. Let’s go; these walls have ears.
27.00 Malone: What are you prepared to do? All the way. The Chicago way.
28.30 Malone: Who can you trust. Afaid of rotten apple? Get it off the tree.
29.30 Shooting gallery: best shot? George Stone. Giuseppe Petri.
32.00 Ready to go to work? Four Untouchables leave Treas. Dept., armed.

33.00 Post Office raid. ‘To cross Capone’. Walk through this door. (=PP1/Crossing the Threshold)
34.30 Debrief with cigars. Saint of the Lost Causes. Photo.


SEQUENCE C: Defying the enemy (10mins)

35.30 Capone: Baseball speech. Teamwork vs. going alone. Kills gangster.
38.00 Ness home.
39.30 Wallace: All Capone business is legitimate. He has no income.
40.00 John O’Shea. You guys are ‘untouchable’. Is that the thing?
42.00 Nitti: Nice to have a family. Take care nothing happens to them.
42.30 Eliot panics, runs inside.
43.00 Evacuation. / International shipment coming in.
44.30 Wallace: get him on tax evasion. How to link him to the money?

SEQUENCE D: Canadian Border (14mins)

45.30 Briefing at the Canadian border. Take the battle to them.


47.00 Malone’s: Wait and watch. -Are you my tutor? -Yes Sir. That I am.
49.00 Action on the bridge. Watching. Malone: Shoot to kill. Stone: Yes.
50.30 On horses. Early shot. Going in.
53.00 Malone captures gangster with paperwork. Wallace shows courage.
54.00 Ness kills gangster in self-defense. Malone: You rather it was you?
56.00 Questioning prisoner. Wallace has books. Prisoner doesn’t talk.

58.00 Malone shoots body. Mountie objects. Ness: Not from Chicago. (=Mid Point)

SEQUENCE E: Reversal – Touchables (8mins)

59.00 Capone: I want him dead.
59.30 At home. -Are you careful? -As mice. “The man who got Al Capone.”
60.30 Subpoena. Gangster in elevator w/ Wallace. D.I.: Nitti operates lift.
62.00 Ness & Malone: Nice to be married. -If you can stand the pain. Shots.
62.30 Elevator covered in blood: “Touchables.”
65.00 Chief Dorsett: Better not to get involved.

66.00 Ness to Capone’s hotel: Confrontation on the stairs.

SEQUENCE F: Sacrifices (15mins)

67.00 Regrouping. DA drops case without witness. Malone: stall the guy.
70.30 Bookkeeper will be going out of town.
71.00 Malone: need bookkeeper. Chief Dorsett: Dead man talking. Fight.
73.30 Ness stalls the DA.
74.00 Malone calls Stone: my place rightaway. Know where Payne is.
74.30 Capone: Somebody messes with me? I’m gonna mess with him.
75.30 D.I.: Nitti at Malone’s. Malone chases other man. Shot by Nitti.
79.00 Malone dying // Capone at Opera.

80.00 Ness at Malone’s. Train tables. -What are you prepared to do? (PP2/Ordeal)


SEQUENCE G: The Train Station Steps (10mins)

82.30 Ness & Stone. Train leaving at 12.05h. We’ll be there.
83.00 11.55h Waiting. Woman with pram.
87.30 Ness helps woman. Gangsters appear.
88.30 Shot. Pram goes down. Shootout.

90.30 Mexican standoff. Stone takes out Payne’s guard.

SEQUENCE H: Is that Justice? (15mins)

92.00 Court: Payne admits disbursements to Capone. Nitti has gun.
95.00 Taking Nitti outside. Shoots at cop and runs.


97.00 Chase onto roof. Nitti provokes, Ness pushes. Nitti falls.
102.3 Stone gives Ness list of bribed jury members.
103.0 Judge looks at list. No evidence. Ness talks to judge in private. (=Climax/Resurrection)
104.3 Judge swaps juries. Capone objects. Judge overrules.


105.0 Capone’s lawyer: guilty. Never stop fighting till the fight is done.

Aftermath (4mins)

107.3 Newspaper clippings: “So much violence”.
109.3 Stone gives Ness Malone’s key. -He’d have wanted a cop to have it.
110.3 Journo: Going to repeal prohibition? Ness: Then I’ll have a drink.
111.3 The End.

When I find the time, I will elaborate on the Key Turning Points.

Meanwhile, please give me your feedback in the comments as I’m in two minds about the Inciting Incident / Call to Adventure. If the bomb explosion is the Inciting Incident, technically the mother of the child would be the Herald, calling Ness to his journey. On the other hand, it’s really when Ness realises the police is not to be trusted that he reverts to his Mentor for advice, which will lead him to the journey.

I know all of this is academic and the first act works a treat because it’s clear the odds are stacking up against Ness in a big way; his world is not as rosy and controllable as he thought it were.

The device of the photographs to emphasise important moments lures me into thinking these are really the key turning points. In this case, the Inciting Incident and the Call to Adventure are one and the same: the moment Ness realises he’s looking like a fool with that umbrella and he needs to do something about it.

Your feedback, please!

(with thanks to Solmaaz Yazdiha)

See also:

11 thoughts on “Structure: The Untouchables”

  1. Though The Untouchables is a damn well-structured story, I don’t think using Campbellian hero’s journey terminology is quite right.

    Elliot Ness isn’t an adolescent going on an adventure, he’s an adult (admittedly naive, at first, but still an adult) with a job to do.

    The thematic question is whether he will allow his virtues to be used to hamstring him and defeat his larger purpose. (“How far are you willing to go?” “As far as the law allows.” “All right, and THEN how far?”)

    Which makes the first raid scene and his meeting with Malone in the church equal halves of the inciting incident, I think.

  2. Isn’t THJ about metaphors? Does it always literally have to be an adolescent and adventure?

    The Hero is often a flawed adult, who needs to grow or transform. The journey is sometimes not at all adventurous, but dark and menacing.

    In his book MYTH AND THE MOVIES, Stuart Voytilla shows how the journey works with a variety of genres and characters.

  3. Si quelqu’un connait le titre de la pièce devant laquelle Capone pleure à l’opéra, ça m’intéresse énormément ! :)

  4. Hi Karel,

    Great job on breaking down the script. helps that I love this movie too :)

    Inciting Incident – It’s my understanding that the Inciting Incident is something that occurs very early in the film (in many cases in as early as the first few minutes of the film). In my opinion the inciting incident is the blowing up of the pub, but not because it killed a little girl but because it establishes that, in contrast to his speech in the preceding scene (“It’s bad for business”), Al Capone is indeed the man who has unleashed an epidemic of violence across the city, and thus put the city of Chicago under threat (illustrated by the killing of a little girl). It is ultimately this threat to Chicago city that acts as Ness’ call to action.

    To illustrate this I take another film which adopts a similar tool to establish the hero’s call to action via the inciting incident; ‘Jaws’. In the opening sequence of this movie, whilst we witness the tragic killing of a young couple, it is not their actual deaths that act as the inciting incident. Their deaths serve only to establish the true inciting incident which in this case is the arrival of a shark whose killing rampages threaten the lives of the good folk of Amity Island. And thus our hero’s call to action shall follow.

    Just my two pence.

  5. As I reflect upon this movie, I can see the scene at the train station as the Plot Point that brings is out of Act II and into Act III. Ness finally gets hold of the accountant and the court trial can begin.

    You can also see the death of the mentor Malone as the All Is Lost story beat. It is followed up by a Dark Night of the Soul in which Ness has to figure out a way to nab Capone without his mentor to guide him. He is truly on his own now.

    One other story beat that I learned from Blake Snyder is the High Tower Surprise that comes in the middle of Act III and inspires a new plan to achieve victory. That sounds like the scene where Ness meets privately with the judge and switches the juries at the trial.


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