The Usual Suspects
is a 1995 American neo-noir film
written by Christopher McQuarrie
and directed by Bryan Singer
. The film tells the story of Roger "Verbal" Kint (Kevin Spacey
), a small-time con man
who is the subject of a police interrogation. He tells his interrogator, U.S. Customs
Agent David Kujan (Chazz Palminteri
), a convoluted story about events leading to a massacre and massive fire that have just taken place on a ship docked at the Port of Los Angeles
in San Pedro Bay
. Using flashback
, Verbal's story becomes increasingly complex as he tries to explain why he and his partners-in-crime were on the boat.
The film, shot on a USD $6 million budget, originally began as nothing more than a title taken from 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 whose poster he and McQuarrie had come up with as the first visual idea.
The Usual Suspects was shown out of competition at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival and then was initially released in few theaters, but received favorable reviews and was eventually given a wider release. McQuarrie won an Academy Award for the screenplay and Spacey won the Best Supporting Actor award for his performance.
On the deck of a ship in San Pedro, California
, a figure identified as "Keyser" speaks with an injured man called Keaton. The two talk briefly, then Keyser appears to shoot Keaton before setting the ship ablaze. The next day, FBI
Agent Jack Baer (Giancarlo Esposito) and U.S. Customs special agent Dave Kujan (Palminteri) arrive in San Pedro separately to investigate what happened on the boat. There appear to be only two survivors: a crippled man named "Verbal" Kint (Spacey), and a hospitalized Hungarian
criminal. Baer interrogates the Hungarian, who claims that Keyser Söze
, a Turkish
criminal mastermind with a nearly mythical reputation, was in the harbor "killing many men." The Hungarian begins to describe Söze while a translator interprets and a police sketch artist draws a rendering of Söze's face. "Verbal" Kint tells the authorities everything he knows in exchange for immunity
. After making his statement to the district attorney
, Kint is placed in a police station office where Kujan requests to hear the story again, from the beginning. Verbal's tale starts six weeks earlier:
Five criminals are brought together in a police lineup—Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne) is a corrupt former police officer who has apparently given up his life of crime; Michael McManus (Stephen Baldwin) is a crack shot with a temper and a wild streak; Fred Fenster (Benicio Del Toro) is McManus' partner who speaks in mangled English; Todd Hockney (Kevin Pollack) is a hijacker who forms an instant rivalry with McManus; and Kint himself is a con artist with cerebral palsy. While in holding, McManus convinces the others to join forces to commit a robbery targeting corrupt NYPD police officers who escort smugglers to their destinations around the city. After the successful robbery, the quintet travel to California to sell their loot to McManus' fence, "Redfoot". Redfoot talks them into another job: robbing a purported jewel smuggler. Instead of jewels or money, as they were told he was carrying, the smuggler had heroin. An angry confrontation between the thieves and Redfoot reveals that the job came from a lawyer named Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite). They later meet with Kobayashi, who claims to work for Keyser Söze and blackmails them into destroying the cargo of a ship coming to San Pedro harbor.
In the present, Verbal tells Kujan the story of Keyser Söze as he apparently heard it. Verbal's flashback reveals Söze's family being harassed by a rival Hungarian gang in Turkey. Söze goes on a murderous vendetta against all those who were involved. Afterwards, he apparently disappeared; thereafter, he rarely conducted business without an alias and maintained anonymity between himself and whoever worked for him. With time, Söze's story took on mythic stature, with most people either doubting his existence or disbelieving it entirely. Back in the present, Kint continues to tell his version of what happened on the boat. His flashback reveals Fenster's attempt to run away, but he is tracked and killed by Kobayashi. The remaining thieves kidnap Kobayashi, believing Söze to be a cover for his own activities, intending to kill him if he does not leave them alone. Before McManus can execute him, Kobayashi reveals that lawyer Edie Finneran (Suzy Amis), Keaton's girlfriend, is in his office. Kobayashi also says that he has the will, the information and the means to injure or kill the remaining four criminals' relatives if they do not go through with the arrangement.
On the night of the cocaine deal, the sellers—a group of Argentine mobsters—are on the dock, as are the buyers—a group of Hungarian mobsters. 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 to do so. He watches the boat from a distance, in hiding, as Keaton, McManus and Hockney attack the men at the pier. Hockney is killed as Keaton and McManus discover separately that there is no cocaine on the boat. Meanwhile, Hungarians, yet untouched by the thieves, are being killed, and a closely-guarded Hispanic passenger is killed by an unseen assailant. McManus is killed with a knife to the back of his neck, and Keaton, turning away to leave, is shot in the back. A figure in a dark coat appears, presumably Keyser Söze, and lights a cigarette with a gold lighter. He appears to speak briefly with Keaton before apparently shooting him (the scene which began the film in medias res).
In the present, with Verbal's story finished, Kujan reveals what he has deduced, with the aide of Baer: The boat hijacking was not about cocaine, but rather to ensure that one man aboard the ship—the Hispanic passenger held captive, one of the few individuals alive who could positively identify Söze—is killed. After Söze presumably killed the man, he eliminated everyone else on the ship and set it ablaze; Kujan also reveals that Edie has been killed. He has concluded that Keaton was Keyser Söze. Verbal admits that the whole affair, from the beginning, was Keaton's idea. His bail having been posted, Verbal departs with his immunity. He retrieves his personal effects from the property officer as Kujan, relaxing in the office he used for the interrogation, notices that details and names from Verbal's story are words appearing on various objects around the room. Putting the pieces together, Kujan realizes that Verbal made up the entire story. He runs outside as a fax arrives with the police artist's impression of Keyser Söze's face, which resembles Verbal Kint. Leaving the police station, Verbal's distinctive limp suddenly disappears and he shakes out his palsied hand. He then steps into a waiting car driven by "Mr. Kobayashi", departing just as Kujan comes outside
- Gabriel Byrne as Dean Keaton: Kevin Spacey met Byrne at a party and asked him to do the film. He read the screenplay and did not think that the filmmakers could pull it off and turned them down. 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 whom, as it turned out, McQuarrie wrote with the actor in mind.
- Chazz Palminteri as US 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 convinced the film's financial backers to fully support the film because he was a high profile enough 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 and 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 and this 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 Kobayashi, Söze's right-hand man.
- Suzy Amis as Edie Finneran, 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 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 what their next film was about by a reporter at Sundance, 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 came up 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 crooks.
The character of Söze is based on a real-life account of New Jersey's John List, an accountant who murdered his entire 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 a boss named Keyser Sume that he had at a Los Angeles law practice 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 meant "talk too much".
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, with an interrogator and a subject who is telling a story, and a criminal caper film like The Anderson Tapes.
McQuarrie wrote nine drafts of his screenplay over the course of five months, sometimes at 14-hour stretches until Singer felt it was ready to shop around to the studios. None were 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 huge amount of dialogue and lack of cast attached to the project. Financiers wanted established stars and offers went out to Christopher Walken, Tommy Lee Jones
, Jeff Bridges
, Charlie Sheen
, James Spader
, Al Pacino, and Johnny Cash
for the small role of Redfoot, the L.A. fence who hooks up the five protagonists with Söze. However, the European money allowed the film's producers to make offers to actors and assemble a cast. They had to offer the actors well below what they usually made but they agreed because of the quality of McQuarrie's script and the chance to work with each other. However, the money fell through and Singer used the script and the cast to attract Polygram to pick up the film negative.
In casting, Singer took the television pilot approach: "You pick people not for what they are, but what you imagine they can turn into." To research his role, Spacey met with doctors and experts on cerebral palsy and talked with Singer about how it would fit dramatically in the film. They decided that it would only affect one side of his body. According to Byrne, the cast bonded quickly during rehearsals. Del Toro worked with his friend 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 talked to Singer and told him, "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 USD
$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 line-up 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 Pollack being the worst culprits. Their goal was to get the usually serious Byrne to crack up. They spent all morning trying to film the scene unsuccessfully. At lunch, a frustrated Singer chewed out the five actors and 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 the actor was saying. Byrne confronted Singer and the director told that for the lock-up 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"—hence the inclusion of Kevin Pollak's improvised line, "What did you say?"
The stolen emeralds were real gemstones on loan for the movie.
Singer spent an 18-hour day shooting the underground parking garage robbery. According to Byrne, the next day Singer still did not have all of the footage that he wanted and the producers told the director that the bonding company was threatening to shut the production down but he refused to stop filming.
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 in the film is real.
Despite enclosed practical locations and a short shooting schedule, the film's 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 and 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 Soze?"
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 USD $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 proceeded to earn $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 89% rating at Rotten Tomatoes
and a 77 metscore on Metacritic
. While embraced by most viewers and critics, The Usual Suspects
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. USA Today
gave 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
magazine praised Spacey, saying his "balls-out brilliant performance is Oscar bait all the way". Hal Hinson, in his review for the Washington Post
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)".
Nominations and awards
Christopher McQuarrie and Kevin Spacey were nominated for Academy Awards
for Best Original Screenplay
and Best Supporting Actor
, respectively. They both won and in his acceptance speech, Spacey memorably said, "Well, whoever Keyser Söze is, I can tell you he's going to get gloriously drunk tonight". McQuarrie also won the Best Original Screenplay
award at the 1996 British Academy Film Awards
. The film was nominated for three Independent Spirit Awards
—Best Supporting Actor
for Benicio Del Toro, Best Screenplay
for Christopher McQuarrie, and Newton Thomas Sigel for Best Cinematography
. 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 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 film an ensemble acting award to the cast.
In on 17 June 2008, the American Film Institute
revealed its "Ten top Ten"—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 the AFI's AFI's 100 Years... 100 Heroes and Villains
in June 2003. Entertainment Weekly
cited the film as one of the "13 must-see heist movies".