The Usual Suspects is a 1995 American neo-noir film directed by Bryan Singer and written by Christopher McQuarrie. It stars Stephen Baldwin, Gabriel Byrne, Benicio del Toro, Chazz Palminteri, Kevin Pollak, Pete Postlethwaite, and Kevin Spacey.
The film follows the interrogation of Roger "Verbal" Kint, a small-time con man who is one of only two survivors of a massacre and fire on a ship docked at the Port of Los Angeles. He tells an interrogator a convoluted story about events that led him and four other criminals to the boat, and of a mysterious mob boss known as Keyser Söze who commissioned their work. Usingflashback and narration, Kint's story becomes increasingly complex.
The film, shot on a $6 million budget, began as a title taken from a column in Spy magazine called "The Usual Suspects", after one of Claude Rains' most memorable lines in the classic filmCasablanca. Singer thought it would make a good title for a film, the poster for which he and McQuarrie had developed as the first visual idea.
The Usual Suspects was shown out of competition at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, and then initially released in a few theaters. It received favorable reviews, and was eventually given a wider release. McQuarrie won an Academy Award for Best Writing (Original Screenplay) and Spacey won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance.
- 2 Cast
- 3 Production
- 4 Release
- 5 Reception
- 6 References
- 7 Further reading
- 8 External links
On a ship in San Pedro Bay, a faceless figure identified as "Keyser" speaks briefly with an injured man called Keaton, then appears to shoot Keaton, before setting the ship ablaze. The next day, FBI agent Jack Baer and Customs agent Dave Kujan arrive in San Pedro separately to investigate what happened on the boat. There appear to be only two survivors: Roger "Verbal" Kint, a con artist with cerebral palsy, and a hospitalized Hungarian criminal named Arkosh Kovash. Baer interrogates the severely burned Kovash in the hospital, who claims that Keyser Söze, a Turkish criminal mastermind with a near-mythical reputation, was in the harbor "killing many men". Kovash begins to describe Söze through an interpreter while a police sketch artist draws a rendering of Söze's face. Meanwhile, Verbal has testified at length about the incident in exchange for near-total immunity. While waiting to post bail on a minor weapons charge, Verbal is placed in the cluttered office of San Pedro Police Sergeant Jeffrey Rabin where Kujan demands to hear his story from the beginning. Verbal's tale starts six weeks earlier in New York City:
Five criminals are brought together in a police lineup: Dean Keaton, a corrupt former police officer who has apparently given up his life of crime; Michael McManus, a professional thief; Fred Fenster, McManus' partner who speaks in mangled English; Todd Hockney, a hijacker; and Verbal.
While in holding, McManus convinces the others to join forces to commit a robbery targeting New York's Finest Taxi Service, a group of corrupt NYPD officers who escort smugglers to their destinations around the city. After the successful robbery, the quintet travel to Los Angeles to sell their loot to McManus's fence, "Redfoot", who talks them into another job: robbing a purported jewel dealer. Instead of carrying jewels or money as they were told, however, the dealer had heroin. An angry confrontation between the thieves and Redfoot reveals that the job came from a lawyer named Kobayashi. The thieves later meet with Kobayashi, who claims to work for Söze and who blackmails them into attacking a ship at San Pedro harbor. Kobayashi describes the boat as smuggling $91 million worth of cocaine to be purchased by Söze's rivals. The thieves are to destroy the drugs and, if they choose to wait until the buyers arrive, split the cash.
In the present, Verbal tells Kujan the story of Söze. Years before, his Hungarian rivals invaded his home and demanded his territory, raping his wife and killing one of his children to show him their resolve. In response, Söze surprised them by killing his own wife and remaining children, then massacred the entire mob. He then went underground, never directly dealing with anyone in person. Baer tells Kujan that he has heard rumors for years about Söze's insulating himself behind layers of minions who do not know for whom they are working.
Verbal resumes his story. Fenster attempts to run away, only to be killed by Kobayashi. The four remaining thieves kidnap Kobayashi, intending to kill him if he does not leave them alone. Unbowed, Kobayashi reveals that Edie Finneran, Keaton's lawyer and girlfriend, is in his office, and he threatens to kill her as well as the families of the four thieves, should they refuse the job.
On the night of the cocaine deal, the Argentine sellers and the Hungarian buyers are on the dock. Keaton tells Verbal to stay back, and to take the money to Edie if the plan goes awry so she can pursue Kobayashi "her way". Verbal reluctantly agrees, and watches from a distance. Keaton, McManus, and Hockney attack the men at the pier, killing most of them. Keaton and McManus board the ship to find the drugs while Hockney finds the van carrying the cash, only to be fatally shot by someone unseen. Keaton and McManus discover there is no cocaine on the boat. Meanwhile, the unseen assailant shoots a closely guarded Argentine passenger; this same figure kills McManus and wounds Keaton. The mysterious figure appears to speak briefly with Keaton before shooting him again.
With Verbal's story finished, Kujan reveals what he knows: the Argentinian man murdered on the boat was Arturo Marquez, a drug dealer who, in order to escape jail time, had told authorities that he could identify Söze. A group of Hungarians were offering to buy Marquez from the Argentines for $91 million. Using the story of a drug deal, Kujan speculates, Söze had Verbal and his crew sent to the docks as a cover so Söze could kill Marquez undetected. Kujan concludes that Keaton actually was Söze; he is convinced that Keaton has faked his death and deliberately left Verbal as a witness. Under Kujan's aggressive questioning, Verbal admits that the whole scheme was Keaton's idea from the beginning, but refuses to testify.
His bail having been posted, Verbal retrieves his personal effects and leaves. Moments later, Kujan realizes that details and names from Verbal's story are culled from Rabin's crowded bulletin board and the "Kobayashi Porcelain Company" logo on the bottom of his coffee cup. Kujan realizes that most of Verbal's story was improvised for his benefit and chases after him, running past a fax machine receiving the police artist's impression of Söze's face, which resembles Verbal.
Meanwhile, Verbal walks away from the police station, dropping his feigned limp. He gets into a waiting car driven by "Kobayashi", pulling away just as Kujan comes outside, searching in vain. Verbal's quote is repeated: "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist." This is followed by his earlier description of Söze: "And like that, he's gone."
- Gabriel Byrne as Dean Keaton: Kevin Spacey met Byrne at a party and asked him to do the film. He read the screenplay and turned it down, thinking that the filmmakers could not pull it off. Byrne met screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie and Singer and was impressed by the latter's vision for the film. However, Byrne was also dealing with some personal problems at the time and backed out for 24 hours until the filmmakers agreed to shoot the film in Los Angeles, where the actor lived, and make it in five weeks.
- Kevin Spacey as Roger "Verbal" Kint: Singer and McQuarrie sent the screenplay for the film to the actor without telling him which role was written for him. Spacey called Singer and told that he was interested in the roles of Keaton and Kujan but was also intrigued by Kint who, as it turned out, was the role McQuarrie wrote with the actor in mind.
- Chazz Palminteri as U.S. Customs Special Agent Dave Kujan: Singer had always wanted the actor for the film but he was always unavailable. The role was offered to Christopher Walken and Robert De Niro, both of whom turned it down. The filmmakers even had Al Pacino come in and read for the part but he decided not to do it because he was playing a cop in Heat. Palminteri became available, but only for a week. When he signed on, this persuaded the film's financial backers to support the film fully because he was a sufficiently high-profile star, thanks to the recent release of A Bronx Tale and Bullets Over Broadway.
- Stephen Baldwin as Michael McManus: The actor was tired of doing independent films where his expectations were not met; when he met with director Bryan Singer, he went into a 15-minute tirade telling him what it was like to work with him. After Baldwin was finished, Singer told him exactly what he expected and wanted, which impressed the actor.
- Kevin Pollak as Todd Hockney: He met with Singer about doing the film, but when he heard that two other actors were auditioning for the role, he came back, auditioned, and got it.
- Benicio del Toro as Fred Fenster: Spacey suggested del Toro for the role. The character was originally written with a Harry Dean Stanton-type actor in mind. Del Toro met with Singer and the film's casting director and told them that he did not want to audition because he did not feel comfortable doing them.
- Pete Postlethwaite as Mr. Kobayashi, Söze's right-hand man.
- Suzy Amis as Edie Finneran, an influential criminal lawyer and Keaton's girlfriend.
- Giancarlo Esposito as FBI Special Agent Jack Baer, investigating the boat explosion on the pier.
- Dan Hedaya as Sergeant Jeffrey "Jeff" Rabin, assists in Dave Kujan's interrogation of Roger "Verbal" Kint.
- Peter Greene (uncredited) as Redfoot the Fence: He not only sets up a job for the five criminals in Los Angeles but also puts them in touch with Kobayashi.
Bryan Singer met Kevin Spacey at a party after a screening of the young filmmaker's first film, Public Access, at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival. Spacey had been encouraged by a number of people he knew who had seen it, and was so impressed that he told Singer and McQuarrie that he wanted to be in whatever film they did next. Singer read a column in Spy magazine called "The Usual Suspects" after Claude Rains' line in Casablanca. Singer thought that it would be a good title for a film. When asked by a reporter at Sundance what their next film was about, McQuarrie replied, "I guess it's about a bunch of criminals who meet in a police line-up," which incidentally was the first visual idea that he and Singer had for the poster: "five guys who meet in a line-up," Singer remembers. The director also envisioned a tagline for the poster, "All of you can go to Hell." Singer then asked the question, "What would possibly bring these five felons together in one line-up?" McQuarrie revamped an idea from one of his own unpublished screenplays — the story of a man who murders his own family and walks away, disappearing from view. The writer mixed this with the idea of a team of criminals.
Söze's character is based on the accounts of John List, a New Jersey accountant who murdered his family in 1971 and then disappeared for almost two decades, assuming a new identity before he was ultimately apprehended.McQuarrie based the name of Keyser Söze on one of his previous supervisors, Keyser Sume, at a Los Angeles law firm that he worked for, but decided to change the last name because he thought that his former boss would object to how it was used. He found the word söze in his roommate's English-to-Turkish dictionary, which translates as "talk too much." All the characters' names are taken from staff members of the law firm at the time of his employment.McQuarrie had also worked for a detective agency, and this influenced the depiction of criminals and law enforcement officials in the script.
Singer described the film as Double Indemnity meets Rashomon, and said that it was made "so you can go back and see all sorts of things you didn't realize were there the first time. You can get it a second time in a way you never could have the first time around." He also compared the film's structure to Citizen Kane (which also contained an interrogator and a subject who is telling a story) and the criminal caper The Anderson Tapes.
McQuarrie wrote nine drafts of his screenplay over five months, until Singer felt that it was ready to shop around to the studios. None was interested except for a European financing company. McQuarrie and Singer had a difficult time getting the film made because of the non-linear story, the large amount of dialogue and the lack of cast attached to the project. Financiers wanted established stars, and offers for the small role of Redfoot (the L.A. fence who hooks up the five protagonists with Koybashi) went out to Christopher Walken, Tommy Lee Jones, Jeff Bridges, Charlie Sheen, James Spader, Al Pacino and Johnny Cash. However, the European money allowed the film's producers to make offers to actors and assemble a cast. They were only able to offer the actors salaries that were well below their usual pay, but they agreed because of the quality of McQuarrie's script and the chance to work with each other. That money fell through, however, and Singer used the script and the cast to attract Polygram to pick up the film negative.
About casting, Singer said, "You pick people not for what they are, but what you imagine they can turn into." To research his role, Spacey met doctors and experts on cerebral palsy and talked with Singer about how it would fit dramatically in the film. They decided that it would affect only one side of his body. According to Byrne, the cast bonded quickly during rehearsals. Del Toro worked with Alan Shaterian to develop Fenster's distinctive, almost unintelligible speech patterns. According to the actor, the source of his character's unusual speech patterns came from the realization that "the purpose of my character was to die." Del Toro told Singer, "It really doesn't matter what I say so I can go really far out with this and really make it uncomprehensible."
The budget was set at $5.5 million, and the film was shot in 35 days in Los Angeles, San Pedro and New York City. Spacey said that they shot the interrogation scenes with Palminteri over a span of five to six days. These scenes were also shot before the rest of the film. The police lineup scene ran into scheduling conflicts because the actors kept blowing their lines. Screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie would feed the actors questions off-camera and they improvised their lines. When Stephen Baldwin gave his answer, he made the other actors break character. Byrne remembers that they were often laughing between takes and "when they said, 'Action!', we'd barely be able to keep it together." Spacey also said that the hardest part was not laughing through takes, with Baldwin and Pollak being the worst culprits. Their goal was to get the usually serious Byrne to crack up. They spent all morning trying unsuccessfully to film the scene. At lunch a frustrated Singer angrily scolded the five actors, but when they resumed the cast continued to laugh through each take. Byrne remembers, "Finally, Bryan just used one of the takes where we couldn't stay serious." Singer and editor John Ottman used a combination of takes and kept the humor in to show the characters bonding with one another.
While Del Toro told Singer how he was going to portray his character, he did not tell his cast members, and in their first scene together none of them understood what Del Toro was saying. Byrne confronted Singer and the director told him that for the lockup scene, "If you don't understand what he's saying maybe it's time we let the audience know that they don't need to know what he's saying." This led to the inclusion of Kevin Pollak's improvised line, "What did you say?"
Singer spent an 18-hour day shooting the underground parking garage robbery. According to Byrne, by the next day Singer still did not have all of the footage that he wanted, and refused to stop filming in spite of the bonding company's threat to shut down the production.
In the scene in which the crew meets Redfoot after the botched drug deal, Redfoot flicks his cigarette at McManus' face. The scene was originally to have the Redfoot character flick the cigarette at Baldwin's chest, but the actor missed and hit Baldwin's face by accident. Baldwin's reaction is genuine.
Despite enclosed practical locations and a short shooting schedule, cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel "developed a way of shooting dialogue scenes with a combination of slow, creeping zooms and dolly moves that ended in tight close-ups," to add subtle energy to scenes. "This style combined dolly movement with "imperceptible zooms" so that you’d always have a sense of motion in a limited space."
During the editing phase Singer thought that they had completed the film two weeks early, but woke up one morning and realized that they needed that time to put together a sequence that convinced the audience that Dean Keaton was Söze — and then do the same for Verbal Kint because the film did not have "the punch that Chris had written so beautifully." According to Ottman, he assembled the footage as a montage but it still did not work until he added an overlapping voiceover montage featuring key dialogue from several characters and have it relate to the images. Early on, executives at Gramercy had problems pronouncing the name Keyser Söze and were worried that audiences would have the same problem. The studio decided to promote the character's name. Two weeks before the film debuted in theaters, "Who is Keyser Söze?" posters appeared at bus stops, and TV spots told people how to say the character's name.
Gramercy Pictures ran a pre-release promotion and advertising campaign before The Usual Suspects opened in the summer of 1995. Word of mouth marketing was used to advertise the film, and buses and billboards were plastered with the simple question, "Who is Keyser Söze?"
The film was shown out of competition at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival and was well received by audiences and critics. The film was then given an exclusive run in Los Angeles, where it took a combined $83,513, and New York City, where it made $132,294 on three screens in its opening weekend. The film was then released in 42 theaters where it earned $645,363 on its opening weekend. It averaged a strong $4,181 per screen at 517 theaters and the following week added 300 play dates. It eventually made $23.3 million in North America.
The Usual Suspects was well received by most critics, and it has an 88% rating at Rotten Tomatoes and a 77 metascore on Metacritic. While embraced by most viewers and critics, the film was the subject of harsh derision by some. Roger Ebert, in a review for the Chicago Sun-Times, gave the film one and a half stars out of four, considering it confusing and uninteresting. He also included the movie in his "most hated films" list. USA Today rated the film two and a half stars out of four, calling it "one of the most densely plotted mysteries in memory - though paradoxically, four-fifths of it is way too easy to predict." However, Rolling Stone praised Spacey, saying his "balls-out brilliant performance is Oscar bait all the way." In his review for the Washington Post, Hal Hinson wrote, "Ultimately, The Usual Suspects may be too clever for its own good. The twist at the end is a corker, but crucial questions remain unanswered. What's interesting, though, is how little this intrudes on our enjoyment. After the movie you're still trying to connect the dots and make it all fit - and these days, how often can we say that?" In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin praised the performances of the cast: "Mr. Singer has assembled a fine ensemble cast of actors who can parry such lines, and whose performances mesh effortlessly despite their exaggerated differences in demeanor ... Without the violence or obvious bravado of Reservoir Dogs, these performers still create strong and fascinatingly ambiguous characters." The Independent praised the film's ending: "The film's coup de grace is as elegant as it is unexpected. The whole movie plays back in your mind in perfect clarity - and turns out to be a completely different movie to the one you've been watching (rather better, in fact)."
Christopher McQuarrie was nominated for the Best Original Screenplay and Kevin Spacey was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards. They both won, and in his acceptance speech Spacey memorably said, "Well, whoever Keyser Söze is, I can tell you he's gonna get gloriously drunk tonight."
McQuarrie also won the Best Original Screenplay award at the 1996 British Academy Film Awards. The film was also nominated for Best Film, and best editing. It won for best editing. The film was nominated for three Independent Spirit Awards — Best Supporting Actor for Benicio del Toro, Best Screenplay for Christopher McQuarrie and Best Cinematography for Newton Thomas Sigel. Both Del Toro and McQuarrie won in their categories.
The Usual Suspects was screened at the 1995 Seattle International Film Festival, where Bryan Singer was awarded Best Director and Kevin Spacey won for Best Actor. The Boston Society of Film Critics gave Spacey the Best Supporting Actor award for his work on the film. Spacey went on to win this award with the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review, which also gave the cast an ensemble acting award.
On June 17, 2008, the American Film Institute revealed its "AFI's 10 Top 10" — the best ten films in ten "classic" American film genres — after polling over 1,500 people from the creative community. The Usual Suspects was acknowledged as the tenth-best mystery film. Verbal Kint was voted the #48 villain in "AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains" in June 2003.
American Film Institute Lists:
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills - Nominated
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains:
- Keyser Soze/Verbal Kint - #48 Villain
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes:
- "The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist." - Nominated
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) - Nominated
- AFI's 10 Top 10: #10 Mystery Film (also Nominated Gangster Film)