The Usual Suspects (1995)Web of Evil

“Round up the usual suspects.” And so they do – and ending up in the lineup are career criminals Michael McManus, Fred Fenster and Todd Hockney (Stephen Baldwin, Benicio del Toro and Kevin Pollack), ex-cop gone bad gone good again Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne) and small-time con man Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey).

Wait a minute … five criminals in one lineup? There’s something wrong here, right? Right …

In The Usual Suspects, not only every line but every gesture, every facial expression and every camera cut counts. Even if you distrust the story being told, you can’t exactly pin down everything that’s wrong with it. The plot unfolds through the tale extracted from Kint, one of two survivors of a massacre and subsequent explosion on a boat docked in San Pedro Harbor, by U.S. Customs agent David Kujan (Chazz Palminteri). And at the same time as Kint is spinning his yarn, in a nearby hospital the other survivor (badly injured and fresh out of a coma) helps a police sketch artist draw a picture of the mastermind behind the scheme – “the devil,” Keyser Söze.

You can watch this movie countless times, and you will still discover new subtleties every single time. Not only will you find that it still makes sense after the story line has been unraveled at the end (which therefore is a plot twist, not a non-sequitur). You’ll also discover nuance upon nuance in Kevin Spacey‘s incredible performance. You’ll see that tiny apologetic grin on Todd Hockney’s face as attorney Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite) lists a weapons truck heist – the very act which brought them together in the initial lineup, and which they have all come to believe to have been a trumped-up charge – as Hockney’s latest sin against Keyser Söze, now forming part of the debt to be repaid by participating in the suicide mission in San Pedro Harbor. And at some point you’ll also have figured out all of Fenster’s lines (not being a native English speaker, I am relieved to find that I wasn’t the only one struggling with them at first) … although the mumbling is of course part of his character, and is as excellently delivered as every other aspect of Benicio del Toro’s acting, his lines are so funny and to the point you almost wish he’d speak more clearly so you wouldn’t miss half his punch lines the first time around.

Among a cast of tremendous actors (to name just two, Gabriel Byrne in one of his best performances and Benicio del Toro, deserving much more than just an “also starring” mentioning in the opening credits), Kevin Spacey‘s star shines brightest by far. To this day it is a mystery to me how he came to be awarded the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor – the only things the man supports (in fact carries, almost single-handedly) in this movie are Bryan Singer’s directing and Christopher McQuarrie’s screenplay, and that alone makes him the movie’s lead character. But regardless of its title, the award was more than justified, and so was the one for McQuarrie’s screenplay. With infinite trust in the audience’s ability to pick up on little gestures, looks and inflections of his voice, Kevin Spacey displays all the many aspects of his character at the same time; and even the tenth time around, his performance still holds as true as the first time you watch the movie. Almost expressionless he tells his tale, always seeming to give away just about as much as he has to, and only raising his voice for a pointed (and exquisitely timed) expletive upon first being confronted with the name Keyser Söze, and for a wailing “Why me??” as agent Kujan tries to convince him that his own archenemy, Keaton, has been behind their failed enterprise all along and purposely let him (Kint) live to tell their story.

This is one of those movies which have you quote their many memorable one-liners forever: not only the one about “the devil’s greatest trick” has long since gone down in film history. To the extent that it cites other works, those citations pay homage, they don’t merely copy – right down to the name of the movie’s production company (Blue Parrot/Bad Hat); like the title containing a reference to Casablanca, the prototype of all films noir (or those made in Hollywood at least). It is one of the best modern examples of the genre and has long since become a cult classic – it’s a must in every decent collection.


Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: PolyGram (1995)
  • Director: Bryan Singer
  • Executive Producers: Hans Brockmann / François Duplat / Art Horan / Robert Jones
  • Producer: Bryan Singer
  • Screenplay: Christopher McQuarrie
  • Music: John Ottman
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Newton Thomas Sigel
  • Editing: John Ottman
  • Kevin Spacey: Roger “Verbal” Kint
  • Gabriel Byrne: Dean Keaton
  • Stephen Baldwin: Michael McManus
  • Benicio Del Toro: Fred Fenster
  • Kevin Pollak: Todd Hockney
  • Chazz Palminteri: Dave Kujan
  • Pete Postlethwaite: Kobayashi
  • Suzy Amis: Edie Finneran
  • Giancarlo Esposito: FBI Special Agent Jack Baer
  • Dan Hedaya: Sergeant Jeffrey “Jeff” Rabin
  • Peter Greene: Redfoot the Fence (uncredited)


Major Awards

Academy Awards (1996)
  • Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Kevin Spacey
  • Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen: Christopher McQuarrie
American Film Institute
  • Top 10 Mystery Films – No. 10
  • Top 50 Villains – No. 48 (Verbal Kint)
Golden Globe Awards
(Hollywood Foreign Press Association) (1996)
  • Best Editing: John Ottman
  • Best Film: Bryan Singer and Michael McDonnell
  • Best Screenplay (Original): Christopher McQuarrie
National Board of Review Awards (1995)
  • Best Ensemble Performance
  • Best Supporting Actor: Kevin Spacey
    – also for Se7en
New York Film Critics Circle Awards (1995)
  • Best Supporting Actor: Kevin Spacey
    – also for Swimming with Sharks, Outbreak, and Se7en
Seattle International Film Festival (1995)
  • Best Director: Bryan Singer
  • Best Supporting Actor: Kevin Spacey
    – also for Outbreak and Se7en
Edgar Allan Poe Awards (1996)
  • Best Motion Picture: Christopher McQuarrie
BAFTA Awards (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) (1996)
  • BAFTA Film Awards: Best Original Screenplay:Christopher McQuarrie
  • BAFTA Film Awards: Best Editing:John Ottman
Independent Spirit Awards (USA) (1995)
  • Best Screenplay (Original): Christopher McQuarrie
  • Best Supporting Male: Benicio del Toro
Empire Awards (Great Britain) (1996)
  • Best Debut: Bryan Singer


Favorite Quotes

“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

“And like that … he is gone.”

Dave Kujan: Do you believe in him, Verbal?
Verbal Kint: Keaton always said, ‘I don’t believe in God, but I’m afraid of him.’ Well I believe in God, and the only thing that scares me is Keyser Söze.”

“How do you shoot the devil in the back? What if you miss?”

“A man can convince anyone he’s somebody else, but never himself.”




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