The Usual Suspects

Pete Postlethwaite, Stephen Baldwin and Gabriel Byrne in The Usual Suspects

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

2 January

 

 

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.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • 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

 

 

The Usual Suspects – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Serpent’s Kiss

Ewan McGregor in The Serpent's Kiss

 

 

A treatise on order and chaos, propriety and lust, hidden inside the convoluted, if a bit TV-ish, story of Meneer Chrome (Ewan McGregor), an 18th-century Dutch (or is he?) landscape gardener. Chrome has been employed to refashion and tame the herbaceous borders of bumptious self-made Thomas Smithers (Pete Postlethwaite) and in the process bankrupt him and seize his bride (Greta Scacchi), if the plans of dastardly fop James Fitzmaurice (Richard E. Grant) bear fruit. This lace-cuffed fol-de-rol of a Sunday afternoon movie is the directorial debut of Oscar-winning cameraman Philippe Rousselot and it doesn’t suffer from bad looks. It also has its odd sly, dry moment – though there are only so many times that the word “woad” can be pressed into comedic service. In looks, high concept and ambition it’s clearly in hock to The Draughtsman’s Contract and would dearly love to be a devious restoration comedy. It’s certainly got the setting and the characters, with buxom beauties, caddish gents and innocents abroad all fitting that particular bill. But in spite of a top-notch cast the script just lies there refusing to sparkle. All is not lost though, there is a nice game of “who’s going to take their clothes off first” to be played. Most of the cast have form.

© Steve Morrissey 1998

 

The Serpent’s Kiss – at Amazon

 

 

 

Distant Voices, Still Lives

Freda Dowie in Distant Voices, Still Lives

 

 

A re-release from one of the most distinctive cineastes in British film. Terence Davies’s 1988 maundering autobiographical film (“It all happened… I had to tone down the violence of my dad”, Davies told The Guardian) is set in the Liverpool of his youth and is more an impressionistic montage of vibrant tableaux vivants than a drama with a traditional structure. It’s a two part affair, the first half concentrating on the brutish, violent dad (Pete Postlethwaite), long suffering, sad-eyed mum (Freda Dowie) and their three kids – as wartime austerity starts to crack and the good times of the late 1950s start to make their presence felt, which is the theme of the second half. It was photographed in a distinctive “bleach bypass” process, which reduces colour saturation and increases contrast, one of Davies’s perennial concerns being the distorting effect of memory. Like its companion piece, The Long Day Closes, the film is shot through with music, from plaintive choirboys to pub singalongs, and works best as an evocation of the era when you could buy single cigarettes in the corner shop and rum and peppermint was a popular tipple down the boozer.

© Steve Morrissey 2007

 

Distant Voices, Still Lives – at Amazon