The Usual Suspects: Catching Up with Keyser


After seeing the drama Public Access at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival, Kevin Spacey went to the party after the screening, walked up to the young men who had written and directed it and told them that he wanted a role in their next movie. At the time, Spacey was a well-respected stage actor who had won a Tony and was occasionally seen on TV in small parts; he had also landed a role in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) opposite Alec Baldwin and Jack Lemmon.

I’m sure that director Bryan Singer and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie were happy to meet Spacey, but none of them had any idea just what kind of huge breakthrough their next project would be to all of them.

It begins with a bloody showdown on a ship in the Port of Los Angeles. The police are left with only two survivors – a Hungarian gangster with severe burns and Roger ”Verbal” Kint (Spacey), who has a bad limp due to cerebral palsy. The only thing the cops can get out of the Hungarian is the name ”Keyser Söze”, which gets their attention. This is a shadowy figure, a mobster whose whereabouts are virtually unknown, but he does command tremendous respect and fear among criminals. At the police station, Customs agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) starts questioning ”Verbal” who has quite a story to tell. He goes back six weeks in time, when he and a group of other criminals with various talents were arrested on trumped-up charges.

The group, which included a former policeman, Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), decided to get back at the cops by robbing corrupt policemen who were running a scheme helping smugglers. One thing led to another, and soon the gang found themselves in California meeting a lawyer, Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite), who represented Keyser Söze…

Written for Spacey
Spacey reportedly wanted to play Keaton or Kujan, but McQuarrie wrote the part of ”Verbal” specifically for Spacey, and his convincing performance won him an Oscar. The Usual Suspects will always be remembered for its marvelous twist in the final scenes; it is frequently listed as one of the best. Some critics loved this movie upon its premiere, others found the twist too convoluted. It is a complicated story that asks the audience to buy into certain things that may seem unbelievable, but watching the movie again after many years doesn’t diminish the pleasure of it. Sure, there’s no shock near the end this time, but still a lot of fun to see how well Singer stages the revelation and allows it time to play out. One thing I was afraid of was that I’d think the twist is all there is to this movie, but I’m happy to report that I was wrong.

Spacey is wonderful as the con artist who may seem weak because of his condition, but always survives. The whole cast is splendid. Following the colorful gang of criminals who randomly meet at the police station at the beginning of the story is a lot of fun, and apart from Spacey we’re treated to rich performances from Palminteri as the agent who becomes increasingly agitated over ”Verbal’s” story, and Postlethwaite as the mysterious lawyer who keeps his cool even when a gun is pointed to his head. John Ottman is another major asset here, creating tension both in the editing room and as composer of the film’s music score; this was also his breakthrough in the latter field. Visually and narratively speaking, Singer makes his mark here, crafting a good-looking thriller void of lulls and where the central villain is expertly built into a presence that seems larger than life. How unusual to make the reveal of his identity anything but a letdown.

In a way, the final scenes is a setup for a sequel. Considering how many X-Men movies Singer has made, we should be thankful that he never felt the need to bring back Keyser Söze. 

The Usual Suspects 1995-U.S. 105 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Michael McDonnell, Bryan Singer. Directed by Bryan Singer. Screenplay: Christopher McQuarrie. Music, Editing: John Ottman. Cast: Stephen Baldwin (Michael McManus), Gabriel Byrne (Dean Keaton), Chazz Palminteri (Dave Kujan), Kevin Pollak, Pete Postlethwaite, Kevin Spacey… Benicio Del Toro, Giancarlo Esposito, Dan Hedaya.

Quote: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist. And like that… he is gone.” (Spacey)

Oscars: Best Supporting Actor (Spacey), Original Screenplay. BAFTA: Best Original Screenplay, Editing.

Last word: “I sent the script to over 50 studios and potential funders, all of whom rejected it. We had some financing, but that fell through, too. I remember we’d all got together to do some early preparations in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s building in LA, the one that housed his restaurant Schatzi – and they just shut the power off. The thing that saved us was Chazz Palminteri. He agreed to play the cop, but he had a very tiny window in his schedule, just two weeks. So the studios knew they had to move fast if they wanted the chance to fund a film with such a bankable star.” (Singer, The Guardian)



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