“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist”
Bryan Singer’s (X-Men, Bohemian Rhapsody) neo-noir thriller The Usual Suspects (1995) got its title from a column in Spy magazine. As specified in International Noir (2014), the major difference between film noir and neo-noir is the incentive behind the characters’ dubious actions. While equally violent, they lack the motivations and narrative patterns found in film noir.
The American-German co-production follows the interrogation of Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint (Kevin Spacey), a small-time con man, whose involvement with a group of high-profile criminals has led him to this moment. These men include: former police officer Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), incoherent Fred Fenster (Benicio del Toro), vulgar Todd Hockney (Kevin Pollak) and mad Michael MacManus (Stephen Baldwin). Verbal is cajoled into telling a serpentine story meant to help the police pin down the identity and location of Keyser Söze, the mysterious crime lord everyone seems to fear. But as the facts of one memorable night are unearthed, identities begin to blur.
To make sense of the characters’ brusqueness, it is important to note that film noir was the cinema of disenchantment. Low-keyed lighting, unbalanced framing, tiptoeing along the edge of good and evil, the presence of antiheroes and pervading themes of revenge, paranoia and alienation all come together to reflect a sense of pessimistic disillusionment with the world. The film’s straightforward plot, which can even be unravelled by the viewer before the final unveiling of the truth, is fattened up multiple layers of intrigue, and embellished in shifting alliances. As no one ever truly trusts anyone, the audience is left anticipating a shot in the back from the friendliest of faces. This, naturally, creates great suspense.
To add to the image of the antihero, the men spend a good deal of the film yelling and threatening each other, with the dialogue resorting to homophobic slurs. These are meant to slice into the characters like sharp blades, scarring a threatened sense of masculinity. While this certainly adds to the cynicism of the genre, and may have been more commonplace twenty-five years ago, the reheated insults might sound jarring to unaccustomed ears.
Kevin Spacey is quite intriguing in his role as “the cripple”, as he manages to unsettle, charm and shock the audience all in one take. It is also important to note that Benicio del Toro devised his character’s garbled speech to ensure that his role would not be forgotten – and he has certainly made it difficult to do so. Much like Brad Pitt in Guy Ritchie’s Snatch (2000), he manages to inject some entertaining mystique into the otherwise blunt lines.
However, the film would not be what it is today if it had not been for John Ottman, who edited The Usual Suspects, and achieved something quite extraordinary in the process. He kept one of the seemingly unsuccessful shots of the police lineup in the film to show the characters bonding with one another – in reality, the actors had a hard time keeping a straight face for most of the filming process.
Without this insight into the mutinous laughter on-set, the film would seem dreary indeed, as it fails to deliver film noir’s richly atmospheric – if slightly clichéd – elements: a devastating femme fatale, copious drinking and smoking, and poetic dialogue. Nevertheless, it bridges the gap between the blockbusters of today and the cinema of the 40’s, making it a truly engrossing watch.
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