What are the conventions and features that make The Usual Suspects (1995) an identifiable crime film? Furthermore how does it challenge and play with conventions of the crime and thriller genre?
It has been generally agreed that genre is a word meaning a certain ‘type or ‘kind’ of film (Neale, 2000, p.6). There are certain conventions of the crime genre that make it familiar and identifiable to the audience (Neale, 2000, p.42). Aspects such as iconography ‘auteurism’ and other conventions place the crime genre into a particular ‘type’ of film (Neale, 2000, p.10, p.13). In this essay I will be arguing to why (The Usual Suspects, directed by Bryan Singer, 1995) has certain conventions and characteristics that make it different from other crime films. The genres of this film involve crime, mystery and suspense. Neale says that many of these genres can overlap and can cross over (Neale, 2000, p.72). The Usual Suspects uses different types of genres that complement each other. The clips from The Usual Suspects that I will mention will function to support my argument. It is said that The Usual Suspects uses suspense and the thriller genre to torment the audience (Mason, 2002, p.163). In general crime films are often thought of as having ‘victims’ of crime and also the life of a crime figure (Crime and Gangster films, p.1).
Even though to some extent The Usual Suspects is typical of a classical Hollywood narrative in regard to the crime genre because of its logical and structured plot, it does have some key differences that can be looked at. Stephen Neale argues that most detective stories are resolved and that the criminal gets caught and punished (Neale, 2000, p.74). The Usual Suspects however is different because the story is unresolved and we do not know what happens to Keyser Soze or Verbal Kint who is hugely suspected in the end. The Usual Suspects has certain identifiable iconography uses such as guns, police cars, blood and hats (Neale, 2000, p.14). The film involves conflict between police and the criminals as well which is a common theme in crime films (Mason, 2002, p.163). What is unusual however is how the film conventions are being used. Audiences are familiar with seeing certain types of crime films that involve conventions which we are used to (Neale, 2000, p.9). Bryan Singer however makes this idea complicated. Crime and gangster films create a complicated moral scenario for the spectator (genre, p.1). The Usual Suspects has been linked very closely to Hollywood because of its stars and its connections and involvement with Hollywood, yet it is different from mainstream Hollywood filming (Neale, 2000,p.20). Fran Mason argues that because of The Usual Suspects’ mixing of codes like theft, suspense and conspiracy are used. They are so self-reflexive to an extent that these textualisations become the films narrative (Mason, 1996, p.164). The texts therefore overpower the narrative as a whole story. So the film The Usual Suspects therefore is not a straightforward narrative.
The criminal named Keyser Soze is a mastermind of a criminal who forces the main criminals to do a very dangerous job (Mason, 2002, p.163). When Kobayashi (actor Pete Postlethwaite) tells Verbal Kint (actor Kevin Spacey) and the other criminals about the job that is asked of them they become very fearful because of Keyser Soze’s because use of his high profile. It is almost like the criminals are becoming the victims of more of a dangerous organization, but are being paid for it. We know this because Fred Fenster (Benicio Del Toro) got shot trying to run away. Earlier in the film Verbal explains this to Dave Kujan (actor Chazz Palminteri) about Keyser Soze.
‘‘It was Keyser Soze, Agent Kujan. I mean the Devil himself. How do you shoot the Devil in the back?’’ (Faber and Faber, 1996, p.122).
Keyser Soze adds mystery and suspense to The Usual Suspects because he is shown as a criminal who knows the act of crime better than anybody else. Additionally the way he is talked about throughout the film is as though he is fictional and not real. Keyser Soze is mentioned by Verbal Kint, Dave Kujan, and Daniel Metzheiser (actor Ron Gilbert) and many others but we do not hear from Soze himself. Mystery in the film is also used through the music which is suspenseful and mysterious and adds to the notion of uncertainty. Near the beginning for example, when the credits are being shown, the music is being played with the camera tracking along a river in the dark, to suggest something dangerous and mysterious.
Suspense thriller films focus on victims of crime or on isolated criminals (Neale, 2000, p.82). In The Usual Suspects for example the main criminals in the film become more and more isolated, especially when there is only Dean Keaton (actor Gabriel Byrne), Michael McManus (actor Stephen Baldwin) and Verbal Kint left near the end. It becomes very suspenseful at this point. The criminals are a team yet at the same time they are very individualistic and a few of them such as Dean Keaton and Todd Hockney (actor Kevin Pollack) create divisions through not caring about any of the team members as people. The surprising element to The Usual Suspects was the scene near the beginning where all the criminals are put into jail because of a truck that has been stolen. Dean Keaton refuses the job offer From Stephen McManus and says.
‘‘No you’re missing the point. I don’t want to hear anything from you. I don’t care about your ‘job’. I want nothing to do with any of you- I beg your pardon, but you can all go to hell’’ (Faber and Faber, 1996, p.28).
Dean Keaton is the person who wants to be isolated the most and not to be involved with the other criminals. Keaton does eventually join with McManus’s crime job. It is surprising to hear Keaton talk in such an overtly offensive manner especially when he has done criminal acts in the past himself. It is almost as though he thinks he is better than they are. The victim in this film appears to be Verbal Kint who seems to be quite a weak and pathetic person throughout the entire film. Audiences often associate criminals with having certain characteristics. According to Stephen Neale iconography means the objects, events and figures in films, and also their identification and description (Neale, 2000, p.14). The Usual Suspects has all of the basic iconographic features which make it a crime film. By looking at Verbal Kints identification, he seems to be a genuine victim. We do not normally associate cripples or people with disadvantages physically as being criminals. Criminals are labelled as being strong minded and willing to take risks. Verbal Kint does not give us any indication to why he could be a criminal. Except for the end where the camera focuses and tracks with him. His legs start walking in a straight line and he is no longer a cripple. His wrist also seems to be fine. He then gets in the car with Kobayashi, who in Verbal Kints words is Keyser Soze’s worker.
In conclusion The Usual Suspects shows conventions and features that make it a crime film. It has guns, police cars, blood and hats. It involves conflict between police officers and the criminals (Mason, 2002, p.163). Near the beginning of the film in particular, The Usual Suspects where conflict is clear. It is also about a crime figure and a victim of crime (Crime and gangster films, p.1). Additionally The Usual Suspects fits in with the notion of being an identifiable genre film because of the fact that Hollywood is often associated with genre (Neale, 2000, p.9). The plot is very logical and structured which makes it mainstream. It also has familiar conventions that we see associate with a crime film like suspense, mystery and detective genres and sub-genres for example (Neale, p.72, 76, 82). The role of Keyser Soze has a big role to play. The Usual Suspects challenges and plays with film conventions with the way the story is told. In most crime detective films the story normally has a solution to it but in The Usual Suspects there are still some unanswered questions (Neale, 2000, p.74). We do not know what happens to Keyser Soze and nor who he is exactly. The audience is also unsure of Verbal Kint near the end and who exactly he is. Furthermore The Usual Suspects is not a straight forward police and robber chase film (Mason, 2002, p.163). This is because the criminal organization of Keyser Soze forces the main criminals to work for him. The job involves them risking their lives. This makes it complicated and not simply a police and robber chase.
Crime and gangster films. Submission of work, 2009. Access online: http://www.filmsite.org/crimefilms2.html. American Movie Classics Company, LCC.
Genre (No date, no author). Access online: http://www.northallertoncoll.org.uk/media/media%20web/genretheory.htm
Mcquarrie, Christopher (edited by). (1996). The Usual Suspects. Faber and Faber. London and Boston.
Mason, Fran. (edited by). (2002). American Gangster Cinema. From Little Caesar to Pulp Fiction. Palgrave Macmilan, Great Britain.
Neale, Stephen (edited by). (2000). Genre and Hollywood. Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group. London and New York
Singer, Bryan. (1995). The Usual Suspects
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