FOCUS Storytelling in the Movies and New Hollywood Old Hollywood

Before The Usual Suspects Singer had directed Lion's Den (1992) -a vehicle for Ethan Hawke - and Public Access (1993), neither notable for any particularly characteristic élan. Since The Usual Suspects Singer has been responsible for the disturbingly bland (considering the subject matter) Apt Pupil (1998) and the flashy but shallow X-Men (2000). Thus his œuvre does not cry out for auteur analysis. Yet, this one film has made a genuine impact on the public conscience - not least by the legendary character 'Keyser Soze'.

The film has to be seen with reference to Casablanca (see chapter 11) - the choice of title made that certain. As did the name of the film's production company (Blue Parrot). On a lesser scale than the earlier movie, The Usual Suspects has become a cult classic. It also forms bonds between strangers.

Like Casablanca, the strength of The Usual Suspects lies in its quality of performance and material. Of course the 'story' is utter nonsense - but the telling is too stylish to resist. The joy of the film is its ability to combine the best of modern Hollywood - action, pace, ostentatious shows of technique - with the virtues of old Hollywood - craftsmanship and tight structure along with the enduring atmospherics of film noir that have gripped audiences since the 1940s.

The film develops a sense of intrigue from the opening dockside conflagration. Verbal (Kevin Spacey), an eyewitness and participant, tells the story of events leading up to the final mayhem. Five New York villains - ex-cop Keaton (Byrne), con-man Kint (Spacey), sociopath McManus (Baldwin), droll Hockney (Pollack) and incomprehensible Fenster (Del Toro) - are rounded up by police in a manner that leads them to suspect a conspiracy. After release, they decide to conspire together to make some profit from their indisposition - but there is always the feeling that someone else is controlling events. All goes tolerably well until the influence of the legendary, seemingly omnipotent 'Keyser Soze' is felt.

The plot twists are always engaging. The storyline is regularly enlivened by the entry of strong (usually unpleasant) characters. The whole film takes off into areas of truth and illusion with the entry of Kobayashi, the all-too-real representative of the shadowy

Soze. So as not to make the film too talky (and presumably to attract the core audience of young men), Singer throws in plenty of explosions and gunplay too. The ending, in which the audience is finally drawn to the truth - thus allowing us the pleasure of two hours of intriguing puzzlement before enjoying the denouement from a position of omniscience - is a masterstroke of popular cinema.

The film is intricate, clever and ultimately fulfilling. The tale is told well - often by Verbal - it is gripping and it is fun - not least the cheating. Someone is playing games with the 'usual suspects', as the film-makers are playing games with us - for example, information is given and then withdrawn or contradicted. Both Gabriel Byrne's and Kevin Spacey's faces are shown as Keyser Soze; in the flashback sequence, Keyser Soze is played by a man with long hair that obscures his face; Bryan Singer played the part of Keyser Soze's hand lighting a cigarette; and composer and editor John Ottman played the close-up of Keyser's feet. Actor Gabriel Byrne, when asked at the Cannes film festival, 'Who is Keyser Soze?', replied, 'During shooting and until watching the film tonight, I thought I was!' Unlike Harrison Ford - revealed as a replicant many years after he made Blade Runner - Byrne saw the funny side of the situation.

The film covered its production budget of $6 million from the UK receipts alone. It took over $23 million in the USA (helped by a healthy batch of Oscar nominations). As befits a cult item, the video sales are consistently impressive.

Some Things to Watch out for and Consider

• The Usual Suspects as Casablanca manqué:

* Compare and contrast the roles of Keaton and Usa Lund.

* What characteristics unite and divide the two leading cops in the films?

In Casablanca who is Keyser Soze? In The Usual Suspects who is Ugarte? - Compare how flashbacks are used in both films -particularly with reference to point of view and how 'privileged' we are as spectators.

* How does the final twist of The Usual Suspects echo/mirror the final scenes of Casablanca?

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