A movie for every day of the year – a good one
Pete Postlethwaite dies, 2011
On this day in 2011, aged 64, the actor Pete Postlethwaite died of pancreatic cancer. It had been diagnosed in March 2009. Postlethwaite had already survived cancer once, having been diagnosed of testicular cancer in 1990, which went into remission after he had a testicle removed. An actor simultaneously of great force and nuance, Postlethwaite’s relatively uncommon name marks his family down as having originated in Postlethwaite in Cumbria, England (the name means Postle’s Farm). His relatively uncommon looks – huge bony cheekbones, honest putty nose, angry skin – were matched by his trajectory into acting. He was a drama teacher before becoming a repertory actor at the Liverpool Everyman and only came to film roles relatively late. But once he got noticed – most notably in Terence Davies’s Distant Voices, Still Lives – he was off. Soon he was playing small parts in the biggest films (Jurassic Park), big parts in smaller films (In the Name of the Father) and anchored British classics such as Brassed Off, or Hollywood experimenta, such as Romeo + Juliet. However he is probably most fiercely, cultishly remembered by lovers of The Usual Suspects, where he brought a touch of mystery to the role of Kobayashi, the right hand man of the even more mysterious Hungarian mobster Keyser Soze. That he managed to stand out in an ensemble of scenery chewers/scene stealers such as Gabriel Byrne, Benicio Del Toro, Chazz Palminteri and Kevin Spacey probably says all that needs to be said about Postlethwaite’s ability to do the “presence” thing.
The Usual Suspects (1995, dir: Bryan Singer)
The Usual Suspects is one of those generational movies, like Heathers, or Apocalypse Now or The Social Network, that are seized first by people of a certain age, but whose greatness takes a while for others to appreciate. Roger Ebert didn’t like it much when he first saw it. He didn’t like the fact that the film was withholding information, and when it did finally show its hand, he didn’t much like what he saw. Fair enough. But so much of The Usual Suspects is not about what is revealed but in the way it is revealed. And by whom – five villains, five different stories about a hijacking in New York, all of them plausible, kind of. If the acting calls for actors with downbeat faces, or careers, or both, the template is straight from one of those old 1940s film noirs – The Big Sleep, perhaps – which deliberately weave and re-weave a plot until it becomes a mess of tangles. Drop into this the character of Keyser Soze, a man of mystery, a Turkish drugs baron so insanely committed to his trade as a gangster that when his children are kidnapped by rival mobsters, he kills them himself on the way through to get to the bad guys. Then he kills them, their wives, their children and still he isn’t satisfied. Or that, at least, is the story that’s told about him. Soze operates off screen, and the very fact that no two people can even pronounce his name the same suggests he might exist only as a legend, possibly. Is Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite), Soze’s attorney, really Soze himself? Might be. But then so could any of the “suspects”. But then so could Chazz Palminteri too, playing one of those hat-brim world-weary detective that the 1940s noirs loved so much. The film was the second collaboration of director Bryan Singer (X-Men, Valkyrie) and writer Christopher McQuarrie (The Way of the Gun, Jack Reacher), two men who understand smart, funny and violent, and the way each can be enhanced by the other. Sure, there’s more than a wave to Quentin Tarantino in there, in the way that The Usual Suspects mixes violence and comedy. It’s in the big “ahaa” reveal, when all is kind of explained, that it becomes clear what a smart movie The Usual Suspects is too.
- Singer and McQuarrie’s best work
- Great ensemble playing by a bunch of actors chosen because they, like the characters they are playing, are on the skids
- Cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel (Three Kings, Drive)
- To answer the “who is Keyser Soze?” question
© Steve Morrissey 2014