The Usual Suspects (Dir. Bryan Singer, 1995) is a so-called “neo-noir” film written by Christopher McQuarrie. The plot follows five master thieves who, thrown together in a police line-up, plan a jewel heist that brings in $50 million and ousts dozens of corrupt New York City policemen. True to ensemble formula, the gang members have distinct specialties and personalities that conflict; however, the story is told from the point of view of crippled Roger “Verbal” Kint (Kevin Spacey). In his telling, former cop-gone-bad Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne) emerges as a sympathetic audience focus: he has a girlfriend lawyer Edie (Suzy Amis), who is trying to help him open a restaurant. He agrees to the jewel heist only when Customs agents destroy his business prospects. With the heist complete, the gang goes to Los Angeles, where they sell the jewels and, because their fence throws it to them, take another job. This one they bungle, losing some of the team and putting themselves in debt to mysterious crime lord Keyser Soze, who metes out the penalty of seizing $91 million in cocaine from a ship in San Pedro harbor. But there are no drugs and everyone except Kint dies in a violent conflagration. He tells the story to Customs agent David Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) who thinks he’s breaking Kint down. No one has seen Soze except a dying witness, and Kujan thinks he might be a fiction, so he lets Kint go. Then the sketch based on the witness’s description is faxed to him, and Kujan watches the shape-changing Soze (Kint) step into a waiting car and disappear. Beyond a fragmented (and Agatha Christy-ish) plot that audiences must assemble, the movie is notable for its ensemble acting. It also resembles Christie’s work (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd) in having a narrator (Verbal) who does not reveal to the audience his authorship of the crime. There is no femme fatale, but the movie has genuine noir credentials, for the characters are helpless to avoid the cascade of crimes that they know will end in death. Many scenes are shot in heavy shadow and some allude to earlier noir classics.
However the film is significant for at least two other reasons. The first is its ensemble approach to authorship, which the plot then embodies. According to Wikipedia (link here), “Bryan Singer met Kevin Spacey at a party after a screening of the young filmmaker’s first film, Public Access, at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival. Spacey had been encouraged by a number of people he knew who had seen it, and was so impressed that he told Singer and McQuarrie that he wanted to be in whatever film they did next. Singer read a column in Spy magazine called “The Usual Suspects” after Claude Rains’ line in Casablanca.” They then developed the poster, which became the first visual idea.
Then the completed film, still an experiment, was shown out of competition at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, and finally released in a few theaters. When it received favorable reviews, it was given a wider release. The incrementalist/elaborationist approach to the film’s creation is replicated in the formal plot of the movie and also in the manner by which the story expands from its kernal to its grand conclusion.
The Usual Suspects is also a clear forerunner to Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000) and Inception (2010), the three forming mileposts in a neo-noir thematic genre that makes memory and its operations problematic. Termed “memory anxiety” noir by William Marling, these films test the viewers’ memories at the same time that actions of recall, forgetting, and memory become key within the narrative. “The viewer cannot reassemble the narrative immediately, making [the narrative subject’s] memory anxiety more intense affectively, but also more logical. The director/author’s liminal hook has shifted from “men who were defined by their often brutal actions” in older noir to theviewer’s task of figuring out ‘what will have happened’ on the basis of ‘what has happened.’ This has proven compelling, as the number of sites on the Internet contesting the ‘correct’ interpretation of did happen in such films – itself a manifestation of memory anxiety.”
McQuarrie won an Academy Award for the screenplay and Spacey won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance.