Two decades ago this weekend, The Usual Suspects opened. It was a cool film with a certain cachet and a hip cast - although it's a sobering reflection on the transience of bankability that it was only when Chazz Palminteri (hot from A Bronx Tale and Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway) agreed to sign on that the money men came on board. It seemed an important film at the time, less so as the years went on. But on this 20th anniversary I thought we might spend our Saturday movie date with The Usual Suspects:
Bryan Singer, director, and Charles McQuarrie, screenwriter, take their title from Claude Rains' famous line in Casablanca: "Round up the usual," etc. Or, to be more precise, Singer took it from the name of a column in Spy magazine that had taken it from Casablanca. He thought it would make a good name for a movie, and he had no plot but a starting point: five guys who meet in a police line-up. He and McQuarrie mapped out the poster before they turned to the script: Kevin Pollak, Benicio del Toro, Stephen Baldwin, Gabriel Byrne, and Kevin Spacey up against the wall. While they're killing time in a holding cell, the five robbery suspects get to know each other well enough to plan another robbery — and to stick it to some cops on the take, too. This is such a neat pretext for a caper that by itself it would have you purring with pleasure. But in the fractured chronology of the opening - that many moviegoers found confusing - Singer and McQuarrie moved on to the real nub of their story: how that chance meeting in New York connects with a spectacular fireball at the Port of Los Angeles six weeks later. Ninety-one million dollars in cash and coke goes up in smoke; and everyone dies except one charbroiled hysteric who keeps burbling about a satanic figure who is behind this mass incineration and much else. ).
In Casablanca, Claude Rains' Captain Renaud was cynical about life. But Singer has a worse case: he's cynical about movies. The Usual Suspects has elements of two near contemporaries: Reservoir Dogs (where the guys get in a jam and shoot their way out) and The Last Seduction (where a doll gets in a jam and improvises her way out, brilliantly), but it's the style of the former applied to the plot convolutions of the latter: Singer is stylish about structure, not shoot-outs. In 1995, the film was explicitly pitched at the Quentin Taranteenyboppers, but it deserved better. Singer handles the gut-spilling fine, but it's not what the movie's about. The Usual Suspects is a festering swamp and, as swamps do, every so often it explodes in primal frenzy. But then it subsides into fetid swamp again, and that's much scarier.
Mysteries are the finest of judgment calls. Too many twists and double-backs and it all begins to seem arbitrary. You have to feel you're in with at least a chance of keeping up. That's what's so captivating about The Last Seduction: you know Linda Fiorentino's thinking on her feet; the plot is a series of accidents which she turns to her advantage. The Usual Suspects doesn't work like that — you leave the theater going, "So the coke didn't exist? Or did it? And what about the guy in Turkey? Is he real? And did the other fellow die in the tire? Or not?"
And Singer and McQuarrie's answer to all that seems to be: it doesn't matter. There is a sinister diabolical Hungarian mastermind called Keyser Söze, whose name is a combination of a boss in Charles McQuarrie's old law firm and half a Turkish expression meaning "talks too much". But after the movie's release he achieved pop-culture cult status, and still pops up on All-Time Greatest Movie Villain lists, even though he doesn't really "appear" in the movie, or at least not as himself. To the film's central question - "Who is Keyser Söze?" - Singer and McQuarrie give a massive shrug. What's the diff? He's involved in everything — IRA arms, Pakistan's A- bomb — but all we see of him is a blurred flashback where he kills his own kids to impress the Hungarian mob with his ruthlessness. In America, no one's so much as glimpsed him, so maybe he doesn't exist, maybe he's just an all-purpose bogey-man invoked to keep the hoods in line. But then, as one of them says, in the film's most famous line (borrowed from Baudelaire), "The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn't exist."
So, if Keyser Söze does exist, then one of the characters has to be him, right? That's the rule of the genre. So what about Gabriel Byrne? Maybe that strange fluctuating accent of his isn't because he's a Brit trying to play an American punk; maybe it's betraying a trace of Hungarian. Or what about another Brit in the closest he got to a big breakout Hollywood role - the late Pete Postlethwaite? He plays a lawyer/enforcer for Mr Söze called Kobayashi, but his dusky hue looks like a jar of butterscotch topping carelessly applied and oddly incompatible with his famously sculpted cheekbones. And, while more exotic than in In The Name Of The Father, his accent - presumably intended to be vaguely east of Suez - barely makes it east of Clwyd. Maybe he's the evil Budapest pysychpath. Or maybe he's Shirley Bassey.
As we observed a week or two back, Hitchcock used to have one MacGuffin per movie, but there are moments when Singer seems determined to deliver the first movie entirely constructed from MacGuffins.In a film that's almost all flashback and interview and voiceover, it pays to be suspicious. But whenever the orchestra swells and someone seems about to do something movie-like — like putting himself out to protect the gal — be especially wary: The Usual Suspects fires off all those glib emotional cues, and then lets you fall over them. The movie turns in on itself continually, reprising line after line, revealing them to be lies and then revealing the lies to be more lies. McQuarrie says he and Singer disagreed only on one thing: One of them thought the film was all true, peppered with little lies; the other thought the film was all a lie, peppered with little truths. So the gang has a permanent air of never knowing what's going on and their circular bickering is that of guys who don't know what direction they're supposed to be pointing in: "You're f**kin' full of shit." "F**k you." "F**k you." "Get the f**k off my dick." The hoods are played by oddballs like Gabriel Byrne - so the point is that everything about him seems wrong: his shirt billows; it's Lord Byron on a heist. The only one who looks like a gangster is Chazz Palminteri and he's playing a customs cop.
It's a curious tale that, intentionally or otherwise, makes a large point about contemporary film-making: Once upon a time, thrillers peeled away the layers to reveal the rotten core. Now, you get to the core and there's nothing there. The interesting stuff is all on the surface. It was sufficiently different back in 1995 that its shallow veneer of profundity was stylish enough to keep you hooked - and it gave the hitherto unknown Christopher McQuarrie a career. The other week, my boys and I went to see his latest, Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, written and directed by McQuarrie. Great scenes, droll conceits, slick performances - but a film about absolutely nothing.