The Usual Suspects (1995) dir. Bryan Singer
Starring: Gabriel Byrne, Kevin Spacey, Stephen Baldwin, Chazz Palminteri, Kevin Pollack
By Alan Bacchus
I can still remember the reaction of the audience in that final moment in “The Usual Suspects”. Kevin Spacey’s overlapping voiceover revealing the identity of Keyser Soze, culminating in Spacey’s final words ‘and like that he’s gone’. The cut to black along with John Ottman’s brooding music sting sent the audience in an uproar of spontaneous applause.
Bryan’s Singer bysantine neo-noir still has the ability to send shivers down my spine in those final moments. The film launched Singer’s career, as well that of Kevin Spacey, Benicio Del Toro as well as some of his key creatives like John Ottman (editor/composer) and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel.
The film opens in the present in the Los Angeles harbour, as we witness the final moments of what appears to be a notorious and wanted criminal Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne). A cloaked gunman shoots him dead then blows up the entire ship. Customs officer Dave Kujan bent on proving that his nemesis Dean Keaton is dead interrogates the only witness, a hapless cripple named Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey).
An elaborate series of flashbacks during Kint’s interrogation unfolds revealing a deadly game of criminal vs. criminal. Five men, including Keaton and Kint, conspicuously get holed up together in a police line-up, with their association masterminded by a legendary criminal spook story named, Keyser Soze.
Christopher McQuarrie’s screenplay is a pitch perfect example of noir storytelling and Singer and his collaborators drench the film with ice-cold crime slickness. The various tough guy posturing of the characters, sharp oneliners, Hungarian mob, Turkish coke, billowing smoke from dimly lit cigarettes, corrupt cops, shifty lawyers, and the perfectly manufactured myth of Keyser Soze make for a great genre film dripping with texture and intrigue.
As Singer’s second feature, he shows remarkable confidence and command of all aspects of the medium. McQuarrie’s convoluted script doesn’t exactly dot all its Is and cross its Ts. But a degree of confusion is acceptable for the genre. Classic noirs like “The Big Sleep” and “Touch of Evil” continue to confound audiences and part the mystique of the genre is the idea of ordinary men engulfed in an ever expanding and confusing world of crime.
There’s a constantly changing point of view, which Singer manages to make clear and accessible even with its numerous flashbacks, and flash forwards. McQuarrie’s dialogue crackles as sharp as any noir ever written. Even after several viewings I still marvel at the intricate dialogue. One of its most underappreciated but expert performances belongs to Giancarlo Esposito, whose lines are read with the rhythm of a machine gun. My favourite line of his: “I got a guy trying to walk out of the hospital on a fried drumstick to get away from Soze. I’ll run it up the flagpole” or “…I need to send me someone who can speak Hungarian. He’s talking like a Thai hooker.”
Wit, intelligence and a genuine love for cinema fuels this unmistakable classic which has survived with all its grandeur intact.
The Usual Suspects is available on Blu-Ray from MGM Home Entertainment