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Usual Suspects, The

Entry updated 27 March 2019. Tagged: Film.

Film (1995). Polygram Entertainment and Spelling Films International present a Blue Parrott and Bad Hat Harry production. Directed by Bryan Singer. Written by Christopher McQuarrie. Cast includes Suzy Amis, Stephen Baldwin, Gabriel Byrne, Chazz Palminteri, Kevin Pollak, Pete Postlethwaite, Kevin Spacey and Benicio del Toro. Colour. 106 minutes.

A group of career criminals (see Crime and Punishment) struggles to ascertain the Identity of the Mysterious Stranger who is manipulating their actions.

The film whose success afforded director Bryan Singer the opportunity to helm the first and second of the X-Men Films (2000; 2003), along with (less successful) Superheroes re-enactment Superman Returns (2006), is a study in cinematic Equipoise. It is one, moreover, which illustrates just how far hard-boiled and noir modes of story-telling have informed the fruitful confluence of Postmodernism and SF with subgenres of sf such as Cyberpunk, most recently at the intersection of Comics and Fantastika in such films as Blade Runner (1982), Akira (1988) and The Matrix (1999), and in the past via such expressionist depictions of Dystopia in the City as Fritz Lang's Dr Mabuse, der Spieler (1922; vt Dr Mabuse, the Gambler 1927) or the enormously influential Metropolis (1926). The Usual Suspects is a film about Cinema itself, one which (like some of the best cyberpunk) constantly deconstructs its own modes of story-telling, whether by use of such well-worn cinematic tropes (see Clichés) as an unreliable narrator or cutting between conflicting points of view, or through daring acts of postmodern rug-pulling such as spelling-out the falsity of large parts of its (apparent) plot on a police incident-board as its denouement gathers its final momentum. How much of this one can bear is a matter of taste. Venerable film critic Roger Ebert (1942-2013) gave The Usual Suspects a negative review, declaring: "I prefer to be amazed by motivation, not manipulation," which is to say (by inference) that he preferred a noir-style examination of the Psychology of characters (very often some form of thwarted attempt at Sex or non-technological Identity Transfer) over the hard-boiled explanations of the police procedural. Reducing much of the action of a film to misrepresentation or lies might seem to contradict fantastika's central tenet of believing in the literal truth of the world it depicts, but this queasily noir atmosphere of Hypnosis and social domination has in fact influenced Genre SF all the way from its inception in the Magazines of the 1920s and 1930s to the age of the computer-generated blockbuster. If the first cinematic release of Blade Runner muffled the all-too-human motivation of its Robots to be free of the yoke of Slavery by adding a hard-boiled voice-over by Rick Deckard, and its sequel Blade Runner 2049 (2017) by moving its noir insurgency of fugitive replicants to the background of the main story, The Usual Suspects' repeated, matryoshka doll-style acts of narrative legerdemain at least reduce its plotline to its most basic constituent: that of a Jacobean revenge-drama in the style of Ben Jonson (1572-1637) whose street-level Secret Master is feuding with the Hungarian mobsters who murdered his family and whose (wholly unreliable) story is recounted out loud, in hard-boiled flashback, by Roger "Verbal" Kint (Spacey).

"A man can't change what he is," Kint tells belligerent police interlocutor Dave Kujan (Palminteri): "He can convince anyone he's someone else but never himself." If there is any art to The Usual Suspects, it is that of refinement. The central motif of five men in a police line-up is simplicity itself and perfectly encapsulates the plot of the film, and it is entirely obvious (on a second viewing) who Keyser Söze is and what he is about; The Usual Suspects hangs together, despite the misgivings of Roger Ebert and others. It is merely that the "message" of the film does not add up to anything more than masculine violence and one-upmanship (see Feminism): any hint of human feeling is rendered as weakness to be exploited. Some might say the same of large parts of action cinema or Libertarian SF, and the film's metier in no way impedes the efficiency of its screenplay, for which Christopher McQuarrie won both a BAFTA and an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 1995. Gabriel Byrne (who plays conman and ex-cop Dean Keaton in The Usual Suspects) told UK newspaper The Sunday Times in December 2017 that shooting on the film had halted for two days due to "inappropriate sexual behaviour" on the part of co-star Kevin Spacey, who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards of 1995. The Usual Suspects director Bryan Singer has also faced a number of lawsuits from young actors. Singer took the title of the film from a column in the New York satirical magazine Spy (1986-1998); this in turn derives from a famous line of dialogue spoken by Claude Rains in Casablanca (1942), and The Usual Suspects is brim-full of filmic quotations and coded references to classics of the genre, including Citizen Kane (1941), Double Indemnity (1944) and Rashomon (1950). Analysis and criticism of the film includes The Usual Suspects (BFI Film Classics) (2001) by Ernest Larson and Studying The Usual Suspects (2008) by Judith Gunn. [MD]


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