Super 35 (?) - 2.35:1
Written by: Christopher McQuarrie
Directed by: Bryan Singer
Starring: Stephen Baldwin, Gabriel Byrne, Chazz Palminteri, Kevin Pollack, Peter Postlethwaite, Kevin Spacey, Suzy Amis, Giancarlo Esposito, Benicio Del Toro, Dan Hedaya, Paul Bartel, Carl Bressler, Phillip Simon, Jack Shearer, Christine Estabrook, Clark Gregg, Morgan Hunter, Ken Daly, Michelle Clunie, Louis Lombardi, Frank Medrano, Ron Gilbert, Vito D'Ambrosio, Gene Lythgow, Bob Elmore, David Powledge, Bon Pennetta, Bill Bates, Smadar Hanson, Castula Guerra, Peter Rocca, Bert Williams
Let me preface this by stating up front that this is not an objective review, for the reason that The Usual Suspects ranks as my favorite film of the last decade, and probably the last 25 years.. This is a perfect movie...vibrant, pulsing with amazing intellectual energy and street grime. Every nuance works, every performance a gem. Kevin Spacey is probably the only actor to truly earn his Oscar for that year, but he had considerable help. Gabriel Byrne gives his finest acting portrayal, and the same can be said for Kevin Pollack, Pete Postlethwaite, Chazz Palminteri, Benicio Del Toro, et al.
What makes this film so good is the writing, my friends. This is the most unpredictable script to emerge from the mindless morass of Hollywood in years. The story is circular with myriad flashbacks. I've seen the movie over 20 times now and I still find things that I've missed the first dozen times around.
The Plot Five of the usual suspects are rounded up in an N.Y.P.D. sweep, supposedly to find the perpetrator of a truckload of stolen gun parts. While they're left unsupervised together in the holding cell, they cook up an ingenious plot of revenge against the cops and their illegal N.Y. taxi service scheme. This succeeds, and they continue working with one another on the West coast, where they find themselves in the employ of one Keyser Söze. The mysterious Söze hires them to do a job that ultimately leads to the demise of all those involved save one, the gimp, played by Spacey. He tells their tale of woe to the police, changing the facts along the way when prompted by detective Palminteri. He is nervous, helpless, arrogant and contemptuous in the process.
Sounds simple enough, right? Except we don't even know of the existence of this Keyser Söze until halfway through the film. Like many great suspense thrillers, Double Indemnity, Rear Window and The Maltese Falcon, for example, The Usual Suspects plays with the audience and teases them. All the clues are right there, but the information is vacant and incomplete. The phenomenal soundtrack punctuates the tempo, which, after the initial gangland camaraderie of a job well done and rewarded, tends to eat away at the rugged calm of these five ruthless men, feeding their paranoia onscreen.
Söze is a legend, a "spook story," conjured up by crooks to scare their kids to sleep. "Rat on your pop, and Keyser Söze will get you." So powerful is he, that his presence is felt in the movie Se7en, which appeared on movie screen a few months later. (Those of you who've seen both movies will know what I'm talking about...)
For those of you who've seen The Usual Suspects, you know that Keyser Söze's identity is revealed. But what of the mysterious lawyer Kobayashi (Postlethwaite)? Is that even his real name? Everything told by Spacey is suspect, to pardon the pun. We begin to doubt our senses as lie after lie is perpetrated on Agent Kujan (Palminteri). "To a cop, everything is simple." Perhaps, but to an arch criminal, it is the tapestry of deceit that is the true game. Money is only the excuse. Like Loki, the god of mischief, Söze is a trickster, a chameleon, a face in the crowd, a demon perched on your shoulder. "This guy is protected on high by the forces of Darkness."
And what of the visuals? The editing is superb, in perfect sync with John Ottman's musical score (he also edited the picture). This is a man's picture in a sense that the femininity is stripped away, discarded and disposed of. A man's world of smoke and drink, murder and revenge, gray, cold, claustrophobic, loveless. Survival is the rule, and the cinematography underscores this at every moment. When it comes to crime, "PC" goes straight out the window. The color scheme is muted, as are the motives.
Criminals like Söze and the "Suspects" are the last holdouts to the emasculation of men in society. When Söze kills his own wife and children just to prove a point "To show them what real power truly is" -- we are left with the feeling that this man is the devil himself but also that all men are potentially capable of the same heinous act. Family annihilators, they are called. Söze is then, in a sense a societal annihilator. Criminals, cops, judges and politicians all fear him. He moves in and out of his various identities, immune from ultimate harm and laughing inwardly all the way. "You can't shoot the devil in the back. What if you miss?"
Like a fine wine that has time to breathe, The Usual Suspects tastes more seductive and bittersweet with each sip. How much is true? Your perception will change with each viewing. And that is the mark of a true masterpiece, the first true film noir crime drama of the 1990's. "And like that, he's gone!"
PolyGram released The Usual Suspects on DVD on June 24, 1997. I haven't viewed the previous laserdisc release of the film, but I was impressed with the DVD transfer. The image is sharply defined, the blacks are very black, the colors vivid, and an overall smooth look. The Usual Suspects is a complex film visually, and much of the film takes places at night or in shadow the DVD transfer handles everything without any problems and without any noticeable grain. There were a instances here and there where it almost looked like the background shifted a little, but I was so absorbed in the film that I didn't pay it much attention. The only unusual thing I noticed about the transfer occurred during the scene where all our "suspects" are in jail at the beginning of the film (at about 13m00s) Benicio Del Toro's very red shirt has a thin dark blurry halo appearing around the back of it. The disc contains both letterboxed and a full-frame versions of the film, each one appearing on its own side. The Usual Suspects appears to have been filmed in the Super 35 process, and the letterboxed version has been transferred with an approximate 2.23:1 aspect ratio (the DVD is not encoded for 16:9 widescreen sets). The framing on the letterboxed version is accurate and precise. The full-frame version also works, but the framing is noticeably off - the left and right edges are cropped a bit, there is a tad bit more picture information at the top edge, and there is quite a bit extra along the bottom.
The Usual Suspects is accompanied by an English Dolby Digital Surround (2-channel) mix as well as a French Dolby Surround (2-channel) mix. The 2-channel English-language track is of extremely good quality and has a wider dynamic range than the 2-channel French one. Apparently, some DVD players report the English track onscreen as being "ENG 6ch AC-3," but that seems to be an error in the soundtrack informational codes encoded onto the disc it's definitely 2-channel. A third audio track contains an English Dolby Digital mono (2-channel) audio commentary by director Bryan Singer and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (this is likely the same commentary that appears on the earlier laserdisc edition). The audio quality is excellent, and Singer and McQuarrie are obviously having a terrific time doing the commentary. They go into great detail about the making of the film, especially what it was dealing with all the top-notch actors they had in their film. They talk about how complex Gabriel Byrne is, and how strange Stephen Baldwin is. There is also a lot of discussion over the casting of Benicio Del Toro, and how no one on the set could actually understand anything that he said due to his heavy accent. This included the actors themselves, who were told that if they didn't understand Benicio, they should ask him what the hell he said (which they do in the final film). Many continuity errors are gleefully pointed out, and there is a terrific section where McQuarrie recites from memory Kujan's original dialogue for the interrogation scene near the end of the film (after Verbal states that he's got immunity). It is an entertaining and enlightening commentary, and is among one of the best ones I've heard. A word of advise, however Singer and McQuarrie start off the commentary by giving away the ending of the film, and then joke about it a little since they assume you were smart enough to watch the film first before listening to them. Do yourself a big favor and make sure you HAVE seen the film first... Before I forget, the three audio tracks can be changed with your remote, or through the menu options.
The only subtitles present on the DVD are in Spanish. These white subtitles are very easy to read, but I can't comment as to their accuracy. English closed-captions have also been encoded on the disc, but they require the use of an external decoder. The closed-captions occasionally paraphrase some of the longer dialogue exchanges, but mostly they appear intact. The closed-captioning also describes many of the sound effects that take place.
The Usual Suspects contains an interactive menu that is designed much like the cover art, with the graphics and text lined up along the height markings that appear in the background of a police lineup shot. The first option is "Play," and what is nice is that is actually tells you which version/side of the film you are watching - either "Play (widescreen), Turn disc over for standard version" or vice versa. (Aside from this, the menu is identical on both sides of the DVD.) The "Chapters" section features 19 chapters over five pages, which you can choose by an image, chapter number or title. "Language Selection" offer you a choice of English, French, Spanish subtitled or Filmmakers' Commentary. Another "Filmmakers' Commentary" option shoots you down to the one appearing in the previous "Language Selection" entry.
The next entry, "Additional Materials", features numerous extras features. The first thing you get is The Usual Suspects Original Theatrical Trailer. This full-frame green-tag "all audiences" trailer runs 2m29s. The picture quality is excellent, and the mono audio is fine. A couple of scene have some minor "fuzzy" matting at the top and bottom of the frame. The "Coming Attractions" section features a PolyGram Video Sampler as well as trailers from three other PolyGram films. The PolyGram Video Sampler (full-frame & lb, surround stereo, 2m34s) is a quick sampler showing clips from various PolyGram releases and a generalized look at some DVD features. Next up are trailers from Four Weddings and a Funeral (full-frame, mono, 2m22s), which is a little on the soft side and somewhat dirty; Dead Man Walking (full-frame, mono, 2m37s), a green-tag "all audiences" spot that looks fine; and Fargo (full-frame, mono 2m00s), a red-tag "restricted audiences" spot that is a little on the muddy side, but clean. The two-page "Cast and Filmmakers" section features a total of nine biographies and filmographies which you can choose by image, name, or character name / filmmaker position. Appearing are director Bryan Singer (2pages), writer Christopher McQuarrie (3 pages), Stephen Baldwin (3 pages), Gabriel Byrne (3 pages) Benicio Del Toro (3 pages), Chazz Palminteri (3 pages), Kevin Pollack (2 pages), Pete Postlethwaite (3 pages) and Kevin Spacey (3 pages). The actor filmographies are obviously very incomplete, and are more representative of highlights than anything else.
As most of you are already painfully aware, The Usual Suspects comes packaged inside PolyGram's difficult-to-use "long jewelbox", and I dread taking the disc out of the case for fear of putting a deep scratch into it permanently. The tray the disc is held within only slides out halfway, after which you bend the tray backwards and pull the disc out towards you. The disc is covered with a small paper "DVD Protection Sheet" that you are asked to keep and reuse to prevent the disc from being scratched when you open or close the case. The only thing that will give me peace-of-mind here is to purchase some extra jewel boxes to place the movies into, thus preventing any possibly-damaging situation caused by PolyGram's packaging. The Usual Suspects liner notes booklet is a full-color four-page foldover that is printed on slightly heavier-than-usual stock. It contains several pictures, critics quotes, a brief summary of the film, and a listing of all 19 chapter markers. The booklet also has a flap attached to it describing the PolyGram Video DVD Rebate offer. This booklet is jammed into the PolyGram case above the plastic tray, and it is nearly impossible to remove from the packaging with your bare fingers (make sure you have some tweezers standing by...). As has already been reported, PolyGram has listened to consumer complaints, and a more user-friendly case design is promised in the future.
Although it doesn't say it anywhere on the packaging, The Usual Suspects has likely
been encoded for use in Region 1 players only (U.S., U.S. Territories, Canada).
DVD production services were provided by DVCC (Universal City).
Review by Alan B. Williams
Original Review: 08/14/97
Last Updated: 09/14/97