The Greatest Trick the Devil Ever Pulled …
This post is my contribution to The Best Hitchcock Films Hitchcock Never Made, a blogathon celebrating films that suit the Hitchcock style, yet were not actually made by the Master himself. The event is hosted by Dorian from Tales of the Easily Distracted and Becky from ClassicBecky’s Brain Food. Please be sure to visit their sites and check out the wonderful contributions by the great members of the classic film blogging community.
Not right this minute, of course. Read my entry first. Then comment on it. Then visit the other places.
It’s funny sometimes the way life works things out for you.
I had chosen my topic for this blogathon quite some time ago. Then, just this past weekend, for my weekly column at Filmoria, I happened to write about spoilers, and how we, as classic movie fans, shouldn’t take for granted that just because a movie has been around for a long time and has become part of the cinema landscape, there are many folks out there who have yet to see it; many who are now what we once were – The Uninitiated. With that, I called on the Community Experts to be mindful of The Uninitiated and always – regardless of a film’s age or popularity – call Spoiler Alert when discussing a film.
From this point forward I am discussing Bryan Singer’s film, The Usual Suspects (1995).
SPOILER ALERT. I GIVE AWAY THE ENDING.
You have been warned.
When you think of the great Alfred Hitchcock films, they all have something very much in common: fascinating antagonists. Consider the following as examples:
- Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) in Psycho (1960)
- Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) in Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
- Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) in Rebecca (1940)
- Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) in Vertigo (1958)
- Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) in Rear Window (1954)
These are characters that aren’t just foils for heroes; they are layered and complex and compelling, and no matter how much we ought to root against them, we can’t help but find ourselves enamored by them. Even Thorwald, in the hands of Hitch, is brilliantly developed through little more than observed actions.
Such richness in villainy is key to the The Usual Suspects.
To recap the plot of The Usual Suspects is an exercise in both complexity and simplicity. For the latter, it’s a heist film. Five criminals (Stephen Baldwin, Gabriel Byrne, Benicio Del Toro, Kevin Pollak, and Kevin Spacey) are brought together by chance, and they decide to pull-off one job together. They succeed, but when they get greedy and go for a second score, all hell breaks loose. The outcome of the failed second heist puts these bad guys on the wrong side of an even worse guy: Keyser Söze. To make things whole with Söze, they have to pull-off a third job.
(It’s your last chance to turn back now.)
The third job is so poorly botched that by the end of it, four of them are dead, with the already-crippled Verbal Kint (Spacey) the sole survivor in custody of the authorities (NYPD and FBI and Customs). Over the course of the film, Verbal tells the story of how the men met and how four of them wound up dying on the docks. But, most importantly, Verbal tells the legend of Keyser Söze. This is where simplicity turns into complexity.
(There’s another – even bigger – spoiler shortly, so there is still time to cut your losses and turn around now.)
With the words of screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie in the hands of actor Kevin Spacey (both of whom won Oscars for this film), Verbal Kint is a masterful storyteller, weaving a tale about the thieves that is part fact and part fiction, but we don’t know which part of the story is which until the end … and even by the end, we aren’t entirely sure just how much of the fact is actual fact, but it really doesn’t matter, because we ultimately know enough.
The genius to this (the Hitchcock-ness of it) is that the details that Kint fills his story with – those pieces of information SO specific as to be entirely believable – are actually based on tiny pieces of information found in the office where he is being interrogated. Brand names, product lines, and two-bit mugshot subjects become filler for a story that is just believable enough to be believed.
Again, thanks to McQuarrie and Spacey, Keyser Söze is both everything and nothing. He is a monster who haunts those who cross him, and yet he is a myth who is used as a threat to keep children in line. As part of Söze’s story:
He lets the last Hungarian go. He waits until his wife and kids are in the ground and then he goes after the rest of the mob. He kills their kids, he kills their wives, he kills their parents and their parents’ friends. He burns down the houses they live in and the stores they work in, he kills people that owe them money. And like that he was gone. Underground. Nobody has ever seen him since. He becomes a myth, a spook story that criminals tell their kids at night. “Rat on your pop, and Keyser Soze will get you.” And no-one ever really believes.
And the brilliance of it all is that Verbal Kint … this man whose left hand is gnarled and whose left foot points directly toward his right foot … this feckless thief who is the fifth man on a five-man roster … this teller of tales to the authorities who doesn’t convince them that Dean Keaton (Byrne) is Keyser Söze, but rather leads them to think they thought of it themselves …
… is actually Keyser Söze himself, whose physical disabilities are merely a front to make himself look to weak to organize a luncheon, let alone countless deaths. We not only learn that this disabled thief orchestrated everything from the “chance” meeting of the five thieves to the ultimate demise of the other four, we also learn that he was never so disabled after all. And we learn it … and authorities realize it … after Verbal Kint, aka Keyser Söze, has left their custody with full immunity from prosecution, in a reveal that will go down as one of the greatest endings of all times in film.
Verbal/Keyser isn’t just a foil for a hero; he is layered and complex and compelling, and no matter how much we ought to root against him, we can’t help but find ourselves enamored by him. And THAT is so ver Hitchcockian.