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The Usual Suspects or the potency of falsity

The Usual Suspects ou la puissance du faux
Christophe GELLY


Cette étude cherche à présenter le film de Bryan Singer, The Usual Suspects, dans le contexte des relations que cette œuvre entretient avec le film noir et néo-noir. Le film, en utilisant ces références génériques pour manipuler son spectateur, contribue à redéfinir nos attentes relatives au genre et à ses stéréotypes, ainsi que notre représentation de son positionnement politique. Cette redéfinition concerne également le système énonciatif du film, qui à la fois reflète et remet en question la vision subjective liée au genre du film noir comme récit.

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1“I don’t believe in God, but I am afraid of him”—this quote from the main narrator and best supporting actor in the film Kevin Spacey may act as an index to the harrowing question that the spectator is bound to encounter after screening Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects (1995), i.e. the potency of falsity. Indeed, this film, like many other detective films or neo-noirs, hinges on a narrative manipulation that aims at deceiving the spectator, and playing on his beliefs and interpretations. This is no news in itself, since one of the defining traits of the genre is precisely that type of narrative and cognitive manipulation, which the investigation is supposed to shed light on and expose in the end. Yet, what appeared more disturbing (or ingenious) in Singer’s film when it was released is the fact that what we miss is not simply some part of the story which enables the spectator, once he gets at it through the investigation, to reconstruct a complete vision of the crime story. This type of pattern would account for the construction of films like Witness for the Prosecution (1957) by Billy Wilder or Psycho (1960) by Alfred Hitchcock ; once we understand who Norma(n) Bates is in reality, we can get access to a new meaning that was previously hidden in certain scenes. Singer’s film involves a more radical process of revision since, unlike what happens in Hitchcock’s film, the final revelation does not open onto the uncovering of a hidden truth (Norman Bates’s psychosis) but onto the cancellation of any narrative meaning we may have constructed all through the film—because Verbal Kint’s story is a downright lie from the beginning. To better understand what this revision implies we need to define how that lie is made possible on a narrative level. This will mean first taking into account the play on the genre of film noir and neo-noir, and the reception by the spectators whose generic expectations are manipulated by the script and mise en scène. A second development will focus on the way narrative manipulation relies on the specific means of enunciation in this film, which is to be understood in contrast with earlier examples of the genre. This examination of the narrative structure of the film should enable us to reach some definite conclusions as to the significance in cultural terms of the shift that this film represents towards a new version of the neo-noir genre.

Generic stereotypes

2It is not necessary to relate in detail the final narrative twist in the film, whereby the narrative by a small-time crook—Verbal Kint, who is being cross-examined in the police station—focused on an evil genius by the name of Keyser Soze, turns out to be a lie constructed by Kint from the various props which Kint can observe in the room where the cross-examination by special agent David Kujan takes place. Of course, Kint is revealed to be none other but Soze himself, a master in the art of manipulation and the bogeyman of the mob : he is “a spook story that criminals tell their kids at night : ‘Rat on your pop, and Keyser Soze will get you’” [00 :59 :17], as Kint tells Kujan. But once we get over the feeling of surprise, this narrative tour de force boils down to little indeed—it seems easier to invalidate the whole of the story that has just been related than to go back on and “revise” one element which, once you modify your perception of it, is bound to change the whole perspective on the story. This is what motivated some negative criticism when the film was released, as if the viewers (some of them at least) blamed the film for bringing up so much narrative for so little “real” story. And yet, although Singer’s film has not really gained the status of a “cult” film, it seems that its narrative inner workings were willingly accepted by the audience—despite some criticism for its artificiality—and that it works interestingly at laying bare key devices of detective film narration (or thrillers), through its extreme subversion of the ordinary practice of the genre. Both issues may be connected—if the film “works” for the audience it is because it brings to the ultimate consequence some inner generic logic of (neo)-noir ; in other words it seems to be grounded more definitely on the audience’s relationship to genre and narrative rather than on a specific crime story.

3Dave Kujan, special agent from the customs office, challenges Verbal Kint with these words : “Convince me !”, a sentence which is taken up in voice over in the final scene when he remembers the various episodes of Kint’s deceptive narrative. The spectator, it seems, shares this expectation and demand, he wants to be convinced by the film narrative. But how is this done precisely ? How is the film built on our consenting gullibility as spectators, the Coleridgean “willing suspension of disbelief” ? Two quite different processes are at stake here, for the film needs not only to ensure that the spectator will adhere to the fictional world as realistic but also as a means to guide him or her along lines of plot interpretation judged as relevant and likely, so that they may finally be discarded and erased to open onto another possible interpretation of the story. The main lead to be followed is the generic frame of expectation that guides the spectator through “cooperation” with the film narrative according to relatively stable generic norms. These norms are the ground on which Kint’s narrative will play to manipulate us. If we believe in his narrative, it is due to our expectations from the film as a “noir” or “neo-noir”, and the deceptive process of the film is in direct relation to our adhesion to predetermined generic expectations from the audience.

4Hence the issue of stereotypes : Kint’s narrative builds its manipulative impact on the subversion of genre stereotypes, since as a frail, gaunt character, afflicted with nervous twitches and limping constantly (the devil upon sticks) he poorly fits the part of the evil genius Keyser Soze. The film is very consistent in the way it takes up the generic canon in terms of characterization or formal structures, with a carefully determined measure of distance or excess that is needed to deceive us into believing that it aims at appearing original or authentic within the generic frame, i.e. to suggest that this is a “neo-noir” film playing with conventions to a certain, acceptable extent. Ernst Larsen has listed the various generic features that appear as distanced but not as aimed at parody : masculine competition that is typical of the heist movies (Larsen quotes John Huston’s Asphalt Jungle, 1950, as a predominant model for the film), the recurring flash-backs so common in the genre, or the feminine character (Edie Fineran, Dean Keaton’s girlfriend) who must be left to engage into a purely masculine criminal environment (this structure is exemplified for instance in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past, 1947). All the classic elements are there, but with some distance again : the characters work for money and an easy life but we never see them enjoying this money or making plans for the future, after the crime (unlike what happens for instance in Asphalt Jungle, or The Killing, 1956, by Stanley Kubrick, and in numerous other films in the genre). Women are almost entirely absent from the film but the femme fatale stereotype remains perceptible through the association between sex and violence. Flash-backs are so omnipresent (they constitute the very core of the film narrative) that they may point to some reflexive intent that verges on parody—but Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, 1944, also works as a combination of recurring flash-backs, which again places Singer’s film in between repetition of and distancing from towards the model. Ernst Larsen brings a convincing interpretation of that structure as subversive with respect to the genre :

The redemption the classic noir narrators seek is clearly dependent on closure. They must bring their story to a satisfying form of completion which usually encompasses their own mortality. Verbal fails this test as well. He stands just outside the doorway of the office and mutters, “fucking cops”, and then limps away. Thus, even before the next decisive twist, the long moment of identification, Verbal has undermined the classic flashback narrator. (p.62)

5We as spectators do apprehend the film as a “neo-noir” since the characteristic traits of the genre, the formal and thematic stereotypes, are present and distanced, distorted but fairly recognizable.

6 The film capitalizes on our deceptive recognition of the genre through this distortion : it aims at flattering us as knowledgeable spectators when it comes to film noir, and seems to focus the narrative on these more or less minor distortions that make sense only for film connoisseurs. The film thus exploits not our gullibility but our “vanity” as filmgoers and film fans. Why exploits ? Because while we are busy gauging the minor departures in style and contents with the classical genre formula, we remain blind to the shots that with hindsight designate Verbal Kint as the master schemer, such as the shot that isolates him in the line-up sequence at the beginning of the film, or the shot taken in a slightly low angle when he observes and “absorbs” the various elements in Kujan’s office to build up the plot he is about to invent for the police officer. A case in point in this process appears in the flash-back that is supposed to account for the way Keyser Soze was “born” to a world of evil when his whole family was taken hostages by a rival gang. Stanley Orr showed how the references to an Eastern setting in this shorter narrative aim at testifying to its authenticity and reality in the context of 1990’s political turmoil, noticeably with reference to the ethnic wars then being waged in Eastern Europe. What Orr omits to mention, in our perspective, is that this “reality effect” (the fact that we adhere to the fiction about Keyser Soze’s origins because it fits the frame of our contemporary historical context) is also another generic twist. Indeed, neo-noir often works out a rather explicit political redefinition of the thematic networks of the genre, whereas film noir usually remains rather cautious on that score, due to the censorship exerted through the Hays Code (Roman Polanski´s Chinatown in 1974 is a good example of the criticism of the political sphere which film noir is loath to voice). As a consequence, the political determination of the character of Keyser Soze in this episode through this reference to Eastern conflicts is a way for Bryan Singer and his scriptwriter Christopher Mac Quarrie to assert the validity of an approach of the film as neo-noir, i.e. as a political reshaping of classic film noir—once again the aim is here to encourage the spectator’s approach as nurtured by a knowledge of previous genre history.

7 The meaning that can be attributed to this generic interplay is at least twofold : the reference to the neo-noir quality of the film is a way to divert the spectator away from the search for clues explaining the story by Verbal Kint, since this story seems justified in its own right by its socio-political resonance redolent of the neo-noir sub-genre—hence the idea that the generic quality of the film is used here as a way to prevent the spectator’s questioning of the narrative thread. Secondly, this implicit political discourse related to neo-noir also acts as a link between the social criticism of globalization and the narrative manipulation that operates on a global scale, too, in the film. I will develop this point at greater length. Ernst Larsen repeatedly shows that Singer’s film insists on the “cosmopolitan” quality of the evil genius Keyser Soze. Likewise, the criminal association of the five gangsters in the plot answers to a logic of task assignment and to an invasion of the personal sphere by the “professional”, a phenomenon which, according to Larsen, refers us to the relationship of individuals within society, not in terms of exclusion or marginality, as often happens in classical film noir (where the detective, criminal or guilty party are frequently odd members of the social compound but on the contrary through the almost excessive extent of social conformity in the characters.

The Usual Suspects, on the other hand, smoothly details how efficient the suspects are—at first. Their behaviour can seldom be faulted even during the climactic assault. They make few mistakes. They don’t compromise the group. They register more as perfectly self-motivated workers, who set themselves a task, plan its execution and follow it through, than as character studies. They have no outside lives. All these elements—even, or especially, the amorality—mirror the concurrent dominant model of corporate teamwork, with its ideal of unreserved devotion to work licensing unlimited greed. In such environments—whether it’s the criminal milieu or corporate culture—personality can be extraneous (p.48).

8What underlies the deception to which the characters fall victims in the film is their implicit belief in the efficiency of team work and in the necessary obliteration of individuality within the group. This logic answers to a global strategy of representation consistent with this obliteration of individuality, a feature that may be related to the time the film was released (1995), a period when internet and globalization became key issues and provoked major evolutions in the Western world (and beyond). Keyser Soze exemplifies essential traits of this globalization, as he seems to be everywhere and nowhere, to be involved in “global”, international traffic, and to rely on political supports on a wide scale. The Usual Suspects questions a global and manipulative narrative instance—an instance whose manipulative nature results from its ramifications in a global world and whose power is so global as to endanger the whole of the narrative as truth-based - unlike what happened, as we saw, in films like Psycho or even Citizen Kane where the revelation of the true signification of the word “Rosebud” for Kane does not invalidate the whole of the preceding narrative. Put simply, the global narrative manipulation in the film is a sign of the extension of the discourse of the film which is shown to have bearing on the relationship between the falsity of narrative and the concentration of the narrative authority on Kint / Soze as a hidden, “global” narrator.

Enunciation and deception

9Another way of tackling the precise manner in which The Usual Suspects stages and thematizes the issue of visual and narrative manipulation lies in the enunciative frame that is used in it. This appears at first sight to be rather familiar, since it focuses on an initial situation which is that of Verbal Kint being cross-examined by customs agent Dave Kujan after the fire that broke out on the ship where all of the criminal team but Kint died. This narrative situation repeats a number of classical film noir examples such as Murder My Sweet (Edward Dmytryk, 1944) for instance, in that it is based on an alternation of scenes from the cross-examination with scenes that represent visually the testimony given by the character who is being questioned. This type of confessional narrative was also exemplified in the classical period of film noir production by Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) whose plot similarly moves forward through a series of flash backs which lead us back to the initial situation where Walter Neff (Fred Mc Murray) enters the insurance building, limping. The same structure is again to be found in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, too (1950). Yet what is striking is the way The Usual Suspects willingly blurs the alternation between the enunciation scene(s) and the scenes that are supposed to represent what is being told during the cross-examination, i.e. the enunciated scenes. The first way the film makes this distinction problematic is by using several scenes of enunciation and not only one which would concentrate the confessional narrative. Thus, when the film begins, we see Verbal Kint being cross-examined by two unidentified characters, most likely to be police officers [00 :05 :00] and we understand only later on that this scene refers to an earlier cross-examination, before his meeting with Dave Kujan. Similarly, the scenes with Dave Kujan are not the only ones with which the enunciated scenes alternate, since another policer officer, agent Baer, investigates the fire incident on the ship and is gradually discovering clues about Keyser Soze’s identity, of which he keeps Kujan informed. Thus, the enunciation scene is double, and the second enunciation scene, developing the plot around the discovery of the Hungarian rescued from the blazing ship, articulates a narrative that rivals Verbal Kint’s reconstruction to the point of nearly endangering Kint/ Soze : when he limps away from the police station, Verbal Kint has just been recognized as Keyzer Soze thanks to the Hungarian’s spoken portrait and he has a narrow escape. This competition between narratives only appears in hindsight of course, but the editing makes it clear from the start that the enunciation scenes are not univocal. This may call for some further investigation concerning the spectator’s role as it is implied by the filmic strategy.

10 This strategy actually implies a lot more than that of which critics sometimes accused the narrative, i.e. a final twist simply reversing the reading of the story. What is at stake is rather the reversibility of this reading along interpretative lines which have been suggested to the spectators but not made explicit, so that the final reversal comes as a confirmation of an earlier ambiguous representation. This does not amount only to saying that the film uses voluntarily equivocal images or dialogues, but that the enunciative strategy turns out to conceal ambiguities which cannot all be narrowed down to Verbal Kint’s status as the main enunciator. For instance, the opening scene which moves from the representation of Dean Keaton being shot dead by a mysterious character (later interpreted as Keyser Soze) to a zoom in on Verbal Kint’s hiding place behind coils of rope on the ship’s deck is “explained away” in the ending of Kint’s narrative when he describes himself (visually) as taking shelter behind these ropes. But before this shot is given revealing this explanation—which as we know will not be the last—it is clear that the introductory sequence to The Usual Suspects does raise questions in the spectator as to the reason why the zoom in obviously points to this place as the origin of a vision while refusing to tell whose vision it refers to. In other words the mise en scène here points to a mystery which has not been reached yet by Verbal in his narrative—hence the zoom in cannot be related to his desire to foreground his own vision in the scene—and it already alerts the spectator to the issue of a problematic vision at the outset of the narrative. True, this is all the more valid with hindsight, but a number of other scenes also signal the problematic nature of narration in the film.

11We shall list but a few, among the more significant. A number of eyeline matches in the editing, for instance, keep insisting on the influence of Verbal on the narrative reproduced on the screen (see for example [00 :24 :59] when Kujan asks him “What happened after the line-up ?”) but more generally some of the main scenes of tension are problematic in terms of later interpretation, i.e. they do not fit in easily within the final rereading of the story as entirely made up by Kint/ Soze and point to a more global instability of meaning in the plot that exceeds the manipulative drive exerted by the criminal mastermind. What does it mean for instance that we are given very similar shots to describe the arrival by airplane of the gangsters’ team in California and when Kujan himself arrives there to cross-examine Kint ? How can we understand Kint’s obviously frightened reaction when Kujan announces to him “Dean Keaton was dead” in the middle of their interview [00 :37 :34] ? Does it mean that Kint/ Soze himself fears he was fooled by someone who passed for Keaton ? Kujan quickly explains his meaning—Keaton had pretended to be dead only so as to escape pursuits— but Kint’s fleeting anguished gaze at Kujan reveals that his hold upon the narrative is far from complete. Of course, other episodes refer with hindsight to this manipulation by Kint/ Soze, as when Kujan tells him that Keaton had used him [00 :40 :22], which triggers a smirk on the cripple’s face, which Kujan fails to perceive. Yet, by and large the narrative is not entirely focused on Kint’s vision and some elements in the plot remain “undecidable”. For instance, Kujan does provide convincing arguments pointing to Keaton’s criminal nature in the end, and those arguments mostly fail to fit the image which is given of Keaton in Kint’s narrative, which opens the way for very unsettling questions indeed. Was Kint/ Soze fooled by Keaton who managed to hide from him his true, evil nature, or did Kint/ Soze purposefully modify his representation of Keaton in his narrative to Kujan because he had foreseen (but how ?) that this character would be good “bait” for Kujan to pick out a guilty party in the crime team, so that he would eventually leave him (Soze) in relative peace during the cross examination ?

What Kujan gleans from Verbal’s account, in fact, is that all of these events are actually about character—or more precisely, the obliteration of character in a classical sense with all of its attendant marks (p.17).

The movie character thus always holds the possibility of literally making a difference, denying us the comfort of projection into a rational, psychologically driven, goal-oriented figure that has been seen as the norm in American narrative film in favour of confronting us with a figure who embodies “the flux of all that changes in and between man” (p.14).

12This redefinition of the value of character in the film, on the basis of a fundamental instability, recalls Stanley Orr’s argument about neo-noir as being “anti-noir” (p.71), i.e. a sub-genre that reflexively undermines the stereotypes of film noir by challenging our generic expectations. More pointedly, The Usual Suspects refers to generic variation as a way to destabilize the spectators in their apprehension of the plot, but this also has results in the narrative and enunciative structure which cannot be understood as being determined merely by the criminal’s manipulation, and which leaves a number of lines of interpretation open beyond this manipulation.


13Bryan Singer’s film aesthetic works at redefining our relation to genre stereotypes by showing how generic markers may be used as tools to manipulate the spectator—whereby the film advocates a distanced approach to the genre. Thus, the complexity of the enunciation, the interplay between conflicting implications of the mise en scène, the instrumentalization of political discourse as a generic marker in the plot, are all elements which contribute to turning the film into some new kind of noir that is not easily captured under the umbrella phrase of “neo-noir”. What is most problematic is precisely the way the film, through plot variation and aesthetic throwbacks (such as the use of a confessional narrative), both calls attention to itself as a rereading of the noir tradition and signals this rereading as incomplete since viewing the film simply as a generic variation is precisely what makes the spectator’s delusion possible. Through the way it refers to generic relevance and irrelevance, The Usual Suspects does then seem to inaugurate a new practice of the neo-noir genre, but also to inscribe this practice within a more general approach, questioning the very use of generic identity in contemporary cinema.

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Christophe GELLY, « The Usual Suspects or the potency of falsity », Mise au point [En ligne], 6 | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 mai 2014, consulté le 25 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/map.1646

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Christophe GELLY

Professeur au département d’anglais de l’Université Blaise Pascal de Clermont-Ferrand 2 – CELIS, EA 1002 – et spécialiste du récit policier (littéraire et filmique) et de l’adaptation cinématographique. Il a publié plusieurs études sur le roman noir et le film noir, notamment Raymond Chandler — Du roman noir au film noir (Paris, Michel Houdiard, 2009).

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