The genesis of this complex thriller was a magazine article, or—more accurately—the headline of an article. Director Bryan Singer was thumbing through Spy magazine in 1992 when he turned to a story entitled, “The Usual Suspects” after Claude Rains’ classic line in Casablanca.
Hmm, thought Singer. Now that would make a good title for a movie.
Singer, then 27, contacted childhood friend Christopher McQuarrie, a struggling writer in Hollywood. The two men’s first conception of the film was a visual—a poster of five guys in a police lineup.
From there, the creative process took over. What would happen, Singer wondered, if five felons met each other in that lineup? And what if a powerful hand far away had manipulated their introduction for a purpose?
McQuarrie blended those ideas with a screenplay he had been working on about a man who murders his family and escapes with a new identity. The script was loosely based on the true story of John List, a New Jersey accountant arrested in 1989 after nearly two decades as a fugitive.
And thus was born The Usual Suspects, a complicated underworld tale of changing identities and double-crosses, all centering on one mysterious question: “Who is Keyser Söze?”
Shot on a minuscule $6 million budget, The Usual Suspects was shown out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival in 1995 and initially released in just a few art theaters. Word of mouth turned it into a cult hit and then a box-office success. The following year it won two Oscars—one for screenwriter McQuarrie and another for supporting actor Kevin Spacey for his portrayal of disabled conman Roger “Verbal” Kint. In his acceptance speech, Spacey joked, “Well, whoever Keyser Söze is, I can tell you he’s gonna get gloriously drunk tonight.”
The trick here is to write about The Usual Suspects without giving too much away. If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve already seen the movie once or twice or a dozen times. But if you haven’t, our goal is to intrigue you into watching it without revealing the surprises that help make it great. So we’re going to tread carefully.
Suffice it to say that The Usual Suspects joins classics like Psycho, The Sixth Sense and Fight Club in leaving you awed by its wonderful twist at the end.
The story, as we said, centers on five New York City criminals dragged into police custody one night for a truck hijacking that none of them actually participated in. While in the lockup, they decide to pull a job together. In a stunning daylight heist, they take down “New York’s Finest Taxi Service,” a ring of corrupt cops running a high-profit racket driving smugglers and drug dealers around the city.
The quintet includes: Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), a disgraced former police officer trying to give up his life of crime; Michael McManus (Stephen Baldwin), a sharpshooter with a crazy side; Fred Fenster (Benicio Del Toro), McManus’ sometime partner who speaks with an accent no one can understand; Todd Hockney (Kevin Pollak), a hijacker who’s also good with explosives; and Verbal Kint (Spacey), a con artist and apparent weakling.
This is one dynamite crew and the actors don’t disappoint. Del Toro, for example, worked with a speech coach to develop Fenster’s unintelligible voice. He’s alternately funny and confounding. And Spacey met with experts on cerebral palsy to study its effects. He filed down the heel of one shoe and glued together the fingers of his left hand during filming so that one side of his body seems paralyzed.
Spacey’s character narrates much of the story from a police station—where he’s being questioned by federal customs agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri, who’s excellent in a small role). And, trust us, Verbal is an appropriate nickname for this yarn spinner.
Anyway, after the five take down the New York cops, they get talked into another job. This one, in California, doesn’t go well at all. After its failure, they learn that the entire thing was manipulated by a mysterious lawyer named Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite).
Here’s where the story takes its first great turn. Kobayashi, it turns out, works for a mysterious Turkish gangster named Keyser Söze. This is the scariest dude in the world—a man who killed his own family to show Hungarian mobsters that he could not be intimidated. A man so ruthless he murders not just his enemies, but also their children, their parents and their parents’ friends. A satanic presence whose very name panics hardened mobsters worldwide.
That is, if he really exists. The great debate over Söze is whether the tales of his terror are true or just legend. “Spook stories,” Verbal says, “that criminals tell their kids at night.”
“Do you believe in him, Verbal?” asks Kujan.
“Keaton [Byrne’s character] always said, ‘I don’t believe in God, but I’m afraid of him,’ ” Verbal replies. “Well, I believe in God, and the only thing that scares me is Keyser Söze.”
Söze, working through Kobayashi, is the offscreen power that somehow pulled together the quintet of felons. We learn that each of the men had at one point in the past inadvertently wronged this criminal mastermind. In return for sparing their lives, Söze demands they pay him back.
And so, through Kobayashi, they are handed an apparent suicide mission, a payback crime that will leave them all rich—if they beat the odds and survive.
We’re going to avoid telling you the details of that scheme for two reasons. One, as we’ve said, is we don’t want to ruin the fun of this movie. And two, it’s so complex that it might take 10 pages here just to lay it all out. Let’s just say that it doesn’t hurt to view this movie the first time with a pen and a notebook.
Long after The Usual Suspects arrived at and left the theaters, its tag line—“Who is Keyser Söze?”—stayed in the vernacular. The unseen character has come to represent two divergent concepts. First, the name is synonymous with a satanic and mysterious power, usually within organized crime. And second, Keyser Söze has come to mean being tricked, being made to believe in something that doesn’t exist.
You may feel tricked the first time you watch this film. But you will not feel cheated. And when you watch it a second time—and you will—you’ll delight in spotting the details and clues you missed the first time around.
HIT: The aforementioned scene where our boys take down the dirty NYPD cops is a thing of beauty—in its inception and its presentation.
The scene opens with an emerald smuggler arriving at LaGuardia and climbing into the back of a two-man black-and-white. The smuggler hands forward a stuffed envelope.
“Is this enough to get me to Staten Island?” he asks.
“You kidding me?” responds one cop. “This will get you to Cape Cod.”
The car winds its way though the city. On a narrow street, a white van stops short in front of it. Suddenly, another van crashes into it from behind, and a third pulls up alongside. Our guys, wearing stockings over their heads, draw guns. McManus leaps on top of the patrol car and pounds out the windshield with a sledgehammer. He snatches the jewels and the envelope from the stunned cops. Then he pours a jug of gasoline on top of the car and sets it afire as the gang peels away.
“Keaton made an anonymous phone call,” Verbal says in the voice-over as we watch the cops and the smuggler stumble into the street—dazed and stripped of their riches. “The press was on the scene before the police. [The dirty cops] were indicted three days later, within a few more days 50 more went down with them. Everybody got it right in the ass, from the chief on down. It was beautiful.”
MISS: Not much to dislike, although some critics disagree. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times put The Usual Suspects on his list of all-time most hated films, saying, “To the degree that I do understand it, I don’t care.”
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “The complicated plot makes sense if you’re willing to pay attention. And if you’re not, well, that’s why God invented the rewind button. . . . For all its cross-plots and flashbacks, The Usual Suspects plays fair: When Keyser Söze is finally revealed, you can almost hear the satisfactory clunk of the last puzzle piece locking into place.”—Ty Burr, Entertainment Weekly
GOOF: During that great “New York’s Finest” scene, the cop car drives past a palm tree. We’ve been to The Big Apple many times—still haven’t located that flora.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: View it the first time just to take it in, the second time to see what you missed and the third time for the sheer pleasure.
PIVOTAL SCENE: Well, it’s the ending of course. Without giving it away, we’ll just repeat the line of Sgt. Jeff Rabin (Dan Hedaya) in explaining his messy office: “It’s got its own system, though. It all makes sense when you look at it right. You just have to step back from it, you know?”
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: There are clues along the way to that final twist. If you don’t want to read them, skip to the next paragraph. . . . You’ve been warned. . . . Okay?. . . . Still here? Let’s just say you should keep your eyes peeled for a gold watch and cigarette lighter. And take note of any references to urine. That’s all we’re going to tell you.
CASTING CALL: Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken turned down the role of Special Agent Kujan. Al Pacino read for the part, but opted against it because he had already committed to Heat and didn’t want to play a cop in back-to-back movies. Singer Johnny Cash declined an offer to play Redfoot, the L.A. fence.
“I KNOW THAT GUY”: The actor who ended up playing Redfoot is Peter Greene. He has more than 50 screen credits, but is best recognized as Zed, the disturbed—and doomed—motorcycle cop in Pulp Fiction.
VIOLENCE LEVEL: All in all, fairly low.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Screenwriter McQuarrie, who worked in the copy room of a Los Angeles law firm, based the name of the film’s villain on a supervisor of that firm—Keyser Sume. Looking to tweak the name (perhaps to avoid a lawsuit), he thumbed through a Turkish dictionary and discovered the word söze, which means “to talk too much.” Filmgoers in Istanbul might consider that a clue.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW II: The lineup scene, in which the five crooks end up laughing, was supposed to be played seriously. But the four other actors kept cracking up at Del Toro’s bizarre delivery of his line, “Hand me the keys, you fucking cocksucker,” as well as, according to Spacey, Del Toro’s repeated flatulence. After a day of trying to shoot it straight, Singer gave up and used footage of the cast giggling.
BEST LINE: Verbal Kint: “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU’LL LIKE: Director Singer describes his film as “Double Indemnity meets Rashomon.” So we recommend you see both of those classics.
BODY COUNT: Thirty-three—not including all the full body bags in one scene.
Join us as we count down the greatest gangster movies of all time! Click here to see what you’ve missed so far.
[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”