A new follower of JPFmovies, JF (no relation), requested our thoughts on the lineup scene in The Usual Suspects. As you know, we don’t turn down requests so JF this one is for you.
In 1995, director Brian Singer and writer Christopher McQuarrie created The Usual Suspects for $6,000,000. It is some of the best money ever spent in Holly Wood. The title was taken from the famous scene in Casablanca:
Captain Renault: Major Strasser’s been shot.
[Renault looks at Rick, Rick gives him a look]
Captain Renault: Round up the usual suspects.
[The police pick up Major Strasser's body and leave, Renault looks over at Rick, who is smiling]
The Usual Suspects was shown out of competition at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, and then initially released in a few theaters. The film received favorable reviews, and was eventually given a wider release. McQuarrie won an Academy Award for the screenplay and Spacey won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance. Ultimately, the film grossed about $24,000,000 during its run.
The film begins where it ends, on a ship in San Pedro Bay, as someone acknowledged as “Keyser” briefly speaks with an injured man named Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), and then shoots Keaton and sets the ship aflame. The next day, FBI Agent Jack Baer (Giancarlo Esposito) and U. S. Customs special agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) appear on the scene to determine what happened. There are only two survivors: Roger “Verbal” Kint (Kevin Spacey), a con man with a case of CP and a limp, and a fried Hungarian mobster named Arkosh Kovash. Baer (while smoking a cigar) attempts to question the still smoldering Kovash in the burn unit, who is delirious but claiming that Keyser Söze, a ruthless Turkish criminal with a legendary reputation, was killing everyone in the harbor. Kovash manages to give a description of Söze to a police sketch artist.
In the present, looking back on events, Kint sits across a desk from Agent Kujan, unfolding the tale as he remembers it. Five criminals are brought together in a police lineup: Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), a corrupt former police officer who has apparently given up his life of crime to become “a lawyer’s wife;” Michael McManus (Stephen Baldwin), a short-tempered professional thief; Fred Fenster (Benicio del Toro), McManus’ partner who speaks in distorted English; Todd Hockney (Kevin Pollak), a hijacker who forms an instant rivalry with McManus; and Verbal.
The lineup scene is the most famous scene in the film; a snapshot appears in the movie’s posters and other promotional materials. The scene caused the movie to run into scheduling problems because the actors kept blowing their lines. If you watch the clip closely the actors were fed questions off-camera and they improvised their lines. When Stephen Baldwin would give his answer, all of the others kept breaking character. Spacey is quoted as saying that the hardest part was not laughing through takes, with Baldwin and Pollack being the worst culprits.
Anyways back to the show. While in the bull pen, McManus convinces the others to join forces (in part as retaliation for the harassment) to commit a robbery targeting New York’s Finest Taxi Service, a group of corrupt NYPD police officers who escort smugglers to their destinations around the city for a few hundred dollars a mile. After robbing and humiliating the NYPD the fab 5 head to L.A. to fence the goods. The fence talks them into another job: robbing an ostensible jewel dealer. Instead of carrying jewels or money as they were told, the dealer had heroin. After an angry confrontation, the fence reveals that the job came from a lawyer named Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite). The thieves later meet with Kobayashi, who claims to work for Keyser Söze and blackmails them into attacking a ship at San Pedro harbor.
Back to the present, Verbal tells Kujan the legend of Keyser Söze: Keyser understood that true power was not in how many guns you had, it was having the will to do what the other guy wouldn’t do, so the story, said Kint, was that after some Hungarian rivals invaded his home, raped his wife and killed one of his children, he showed these mobsters what true will really was by killing his own family rather than having them live another day after that. Then he butchered the entire mob and went underground, never directly dealing with anyone in person, and became “a spook story criminals tell their kids at night.”
With Verbal’s story finished, Kujan divulges what he knows: an Argentinian body was found that morning on shore, and it is revealed that the man, Arturo Marquez, in order to escape jail time, had said that he could personally identify Keyser Söze. A group of Hungarians was offering to buy Marquez (not drugs) for $91 million. Using the drug deal as cover, Kujan believed that Söze used Verbal and his crew to allow Söze to personally kill Marquez. Kujan concludes that Keaton actually was Keyser Söze and Verbal admits that the whole affair was Keaton’s idea from the beginning.
His bail having been posted, Verbal retrieves his personal effects from the property officer including the gold watch and lighter seen in the opening minutes of the film. As Kujan, looks around the office he realizes with shock that all the details and names from Verbal’s story are from various objects in the room. Kujan realizes that most of Verbal’s story was improvised and chases after him, running past a fax machine as it prints the police artist’s sketch of Keyser Söze that is none other than Verbal Kint. As Verbal walks away from the police station, he drops his feigned limp and gets into a waiting Jaguar, pulling away just as Kujan comes outside, searching in vain.
The Usual Suspects came out the year of Kevin Costner’s acute downfall with Waterworld and (rightfully so) is lauded as Bryan Singer’s best film and Christopher McQuarrie’s masterpiece. When people talk about the film, its surprise ending is the most commented upon, followed by Kevin Spacey’s performance, Benicio Del Toro’s crazy accent, and the famed lineup scene. The Usual Suspects is one of those movies that is on the one hand beloved and on the other hand often nitpicked by the small minded screw-heads. Even those who don’t readily identify with the film should recognize that it belongs in the must-see file. Any movie that has the guts to tell a story largely based on the rumor of a phantom villain so terrifying his mere name inspires horror at the very least deserves to be seen.
The Usual Suspects is also another variation of the Rashomon technique known as the “unreliable narrator.” Verbal Kint, our unreliable narrator, is revealed at the end to have referred to random words and visual details visible to the Kint in the interrogation room (i.e. a Kobayashi brand coffee mug) raising the question of how much, if any, of his story was true. Kujan begins his questioning with a particular theory in mind, and Kint happily leads him astray by telling Kujan exactly what he’s expecting to hear (he even states that this is how police officers think, they only find what they expect to find). What a film.