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Gabriel Byrne and Kevin Spacey in ‘The Usual Suspects’ (Everett Collection)
Who is Keyser Söze? It’s the mystery that drives 1995’s The Usual Suspects, until all is revealed — or is it? — in the film’s iconic final scene. In the two decades since Bryan Singer’s modern noir classic premiered, that ending has become a pop culture touchstone, inspiring countless parodies and imitators. As we approach the 20th anniversary of The Usual Suspects, here’s a behind-the-scenes look at how the film pulled off its startling twist. [Warning: 20-year-old spoilers ahead.]
The Usual Suspects centers on five criminals (played by Gabriel Byrne, Kevin Spacey, Benicio Del Toro, Kevin Pollak, and Stephen Baldwin) who meet in a police lineup and decide to pull off a heist together. When the crime doesn’t go as planned, the men discover that they’re being used as pawns in a larger scheme masterminded by a semi-mythical crime lord named Keyser Söze via his attorney Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite). The film’s story is told through flashbacks, as customs agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) and police sergeant Jeff Rabin (Dan Hedaya) interrogate the sole surviving member of the lineup, Verbal Kint (Spacey). The crippled, introverted Kint serves as the de facto narrator of the movie, until Agent Kujan pulls the rug out from under him in the film’s final minutes — revealing that the mysterious Keyser Söze was none other than Verbal’s friend and co-conspirator Dean Keaton (Byrne). Verbal appears devastated and limps out of the police station. All appears to be resolved.
That’s when the film pulls off a masterful reversal: Kujan looks around his office and discovers that the major details of Verbal’s confession were lifted from flyers and notes on Kujan’s bulletin board as well as other objects around the room. In other words: He’d improvised the whole thing. As it dawns on Kujan that Verbal has been Keyser Söze all along, we see Verbal lose his limp, flex his supposedly paralyzed fingers, and slip into a getaway car driven by Kobayashi. The last shot cuts back to an earlier scene of Verbal explaining Keyser Söze’s legend to Kujan: Kevin Spacey blows on his fingers and whispers the line, “And like that — he’s gone.”
Watch the final scene:
The last 15 minutes of The Usual Suspects is not just a “gotcha” ending — it’s the entire point of the film, and the crux of screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie’s original pitch to Singer. In a 2014 interview with Cinetropolis, McQuarrie recalled sitting at his desk, gazing at a bulletin board, when he stumbled on the idea. “I noticed the bulletin board was made by a company called Quartet in Skokie, Illinois, and I started to spin a little tale about being in a barbershop quartet in Skokie, Illinois,” said McQuarrie. “And then the idea hit me that this is what the guy, Verbal, is going to do in the film.” So the screenwriter began to weave his story much like Verbal does in the film, pulling names from his own environment: In McQuarrie’s case, the law firm where he worked, which employed men named Dave Kujan, Fred Fenster, Jeff Rabin, and Kayser Sume. (The latter would request, after reading the script, that his last name be changed; “Söze” was taken from the Turkish word for “verbal.”)
As McQuarrie remembers it, his pitch to Singer went like this, “There’s a guy being interrogated by another guy, who is looking for a criminal. He’s sitting in a big messy office with lots of crap in it. And there’s this bulletin board on the wall. At the end of the film, when the guy who’s doing the interrogating finally turns around and looks at the bulletin board after the other guy has left, he realizes that not only is this guy the guy he’s been looking for, but he’s made up his entire story from the board.” Singer’s response: “That’s great, go with that.”
Dan Hedaya and Chazz Palminteri (Everett Collection)
Once the movie went into production in 1994, the filmmakers began devising tricks to prevent the audience from guessing its big reveal. Chief among these was casting Spacey, a then-little-known actor who had impressed Singer and McQuarrie in a recurring role on the CBS crime drama Wiseguy. “Audiences are very smart. If you’d put the biggest actor in the movie in the role of Verbal, the audience would be thinking, ‘When is Dustin Hoffman going to stop limping?’” McQuarrie told Cinetropolis. “Kevin, who is a very gifted actor, was not the guy you would expect to suddenly be the villain, especially at that stage in his career. We live in an age where villains’ parts are handed to Jeremy Irons and Alan Rickman.“
Part of the conceit of Verbal’s story is that Keyser Söze may or may not exist. (Verbal describes him as “a spook story that criminals tell their kids at night: Rat on your pop, and Keyer Söze will get you.”) The only time the audience gets a full-on look at the character — albeit a blurry one — is when Verbal recites a gruesome legend about young Söze killing his own family rather than let a rival get the upper hand. During this scene, shot with no dialogue and a slow frame rate to give it a dreamlike quality, Keyser was played by Singer’s long-haired intern Scott Morgan. (On the DVD commentary, McQuarrie said of that sequence, “This was a scene in the script that I handed over to Brian and said, ‘This is your problem. You try and shoot this flashback without putting Kevin Spacey in it.’”)
Watch the flashback scene with Söze:
Elsewhere in the film, Keyser appears only as a shadowy figure. In order to keep the audience off the scent, multiple actors and crew members stood in for the mystery man, including Spacey, Byrne, Chazz Palminteri’s stunt double, and Singer himself. For the scene in which Keyser Söze (disguised in a coat and fedora) kills Byrne’s character Keaton, Singer asked Byrne to put on the costume and shoot the gun — a request that confused the actor to no end. “Singer said, ‘I want you to put on the hat, and the coat, and the gun, and I want you to shoot him,’” Byrne recalled in a featurette for the 2002 special edition DVD. “I said, but ‘him’ is me! He said, ‘I know him is you. But I want you to shoot you.’… He said, ‘It’s important that the audience for that moment thinks that that character with the gun and the hat is you. And if you really look closely, and you stop it, it is me.”
In Spacey’s final moments onscreen, he sheds Verbal Kint’s limp and mannerisms, revealing that he is Keyser Söze (or at least, the man perpetuating the legend). How exactly to accomplish that transition between Verbal and Keyser — in just a few seconds, with no additional dialogue — was the subject of much discussion between Singer and Spacey. “Bryan and I had a lot of conversations prior to filming about ‘How do we make the change?‘” Spacey said in the DVD featurette. “Does Verbal come down the stairs of the police station and as he’s beginning to walk away, shed his jacket and tousle his hair and get into the car and maybe a jacket comes out of the car and he puts on a different sports coat, and suddenly he puts on a pair of dark glasses, and suddenly, physically, he changes?…. And we ultimately decided that what would probably be more profound and debilitating for an audience…was if absolutely nothing changed but your perception.”
The big final sequence was actually shot early in the production schedule, since Palminteri — hot off his Oscar nomination for Bullets Over Broadway — was only available for two weeks of filming. On the DVD commentary, Singer recalled shooting countless takes of Kujan’s coffee mug smashing to the floor as he realizes the ruse — so many that Dan Hedaya accused him of “mugging.” For the moment when an artist’s sketch of Keyser Söze (with a telltale resemblance to Spacey) is faxed to the police station, the director gave his own mother a cameo; she’s the nurse at the fax machine.
After shooting on The Usual Suspects wrapped, Singer and editor John Ottman cut together the film — and realized that the ending didn’t work. Palminteri’s monologue about Keaton being Keyser Söze was dense with exposition, and didn’t pack the punch the filmmakers had anticipated. And if Kujan couldn’t convince the audience that Keaton was the villain, then the big reveal about Verbal wouldn’t work, either. “It was the most disastrous sequence of the film. And it was really depressing for us, because we had built up to this one moment,” Ottman explained in the featurette.
Watch Kujan try to explain why Keaton was Söze:
To fix the problem, Singer decided to add more visual elements to the sequence. The director instructed Ottman, “You need to go back into the film, and you need to get all the information you can that’s going to convince the audience that Gabriel Byrne is the crook. And then you’ve got to go back in and find the same stuff for Spacey, and we gotta just assemble it all.” Using footage and outtakes that were never intended for that purpose — including the head-on shot of Byrne in a fedora, shooting a gun — Ottman assembled a montage that made a convincing case for Keaton being Söze. He intercut Kujan’s monologue with the footage of Byrne, then added additional clips of Spacey-as-Söze into the film’s final minutes. But the impact still wasn’t there, so Ottman (who also composed the score) put together an “extremely difficult and time-consuming” audio montage, connecting the visuals to dialogue from earlier in the film and repeating the words “Keyser Söze” over Verbal’s exit. “That’s when the sequence started working,” he recalled.
There were still a few more tweaks to be made. Initially, the film’s final moments were scored with suspenseful “getaway” music, which left the audience feeling like the villain had won. Ottman composed new music, based on French composer Camille Saint-Saëns’ “The Carnival of the Animals,” “and it completely made the sequence because [it became] this magical, eerie, ironic sequence as opposed to DUN-DUN-DUN, he’s getting away!” Ottman said on the DVD commentary. “And instead we have a euphoric moment here when he’s getting away as opposed to a horrible moment.” Then there was the last shot of the film: Repurposed footage of Spacey saying, “And like that, he’s gone.” McQuarrie hadn’t written that line for the ending; cutting it in from an earlier scene was an inspiration of Singer’s, and when the screenwriter saw it, he told Cinetropolis, “I was blown away.”
Kevin Spacey (Everett Collection)
The completed film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in January 1995 and opened in limited release in August, before going wide in September. Prior to the film’s theatrical debut, Gramercy Pictures ran an ad campaign hyping the movie’s mystery, with posters and TV spots asking “Who is Keyser Söze?” Critics were urged to keep the final reveal a secret. The gambit worked, and The Usual Suspects became a sleeper hit, easily making back its $6 million production budget with over $23 million in box-office receipts. The following year, the film was awarded two Oscars: Spacey for Best Supporting Actor and McQuarrie for Best Screenplay.
Twenty years after The Usual Suspects premiered, Keyser Söze is a name that everyone knows — an ironic twist, considering that during filming, the cast had trouble even pronouncing it correctly. The mythical Keyser was included among Empire magazine’s 100 Greatest Movie Characters (#69) and is on the AFI list of cinema’s 50 Greatest Villains (#48). The name has become media shorthand for shadowy schemers and has recently been applied to such polarizing political figures as Edward Snowden documentarian Laura Poitras and Republican presidential candidate Scott Walker. A modestly tongue-in-cheek Forbes article from 2013 suggested that to become spectacularly wealthy, people should adopt Keyser’s ruthless business tactics, asking themselves, “What would Keyser Söze do?” The legend of Söze has remained so potent that the character’s origins are being explored in a new comic-book series, “Keyser Söze: Scorched Earth,” arriving in stores in 2016. And of course, The Usual Suspects’ iconic final moments have been parodied countless times, from Key and Peel’s “Cat Poster” sketch to Amy Schumer doing a “Keyser Söze walk” in this summer’s Trainwreck.
So: Who is Keyser Söze? It would be easy to think that the question has been answered, but the cast and crew have expressed some ambiguity over the years. In a 1997 interview with Metro Silicon Valley, the late Pete Postlethwaite recalled telling Singer he would play “any part” in The Usual Suspects, to which Singer replied, “Why not? They’re all Keyser Söze.” McQuarrie and Singer have said they fought about the identity of Keyser Söze during production. ”I have a theory,” Singer told EW in 1995. ”Unfortunately, it differs from Chris’ theory — and he’s the writer.” (McQuarrie has never revealed his theory, preferring to leave the decision in the audience’s hands; Singer said on the DVD featurette that he believes the faxed sketch proves that Verbal is Söze.)
Kevin Spacey claims that every actor on set believed himself to be Keyser Söze, and has repeatedly told a story about Gabriel Byrne flying into a rage when he screened the film and realized it wasn’t him. (“Gabriel Byrne was stunned that he wasn’t Keyser Söze,” Spacey said on The Colbert Report in 2011. “Went out into the parking lot and had an argument with Bryan Singer, for a half an hour.”) However, Byrne and Singer have never confirmed this — and in fact, Byrne said on the DVD featurette that his job on The Usual Suspects was “to really take attention off Spacey.” At the same time, Byrne has remained open to alternate theories of Keyser Söze. “Is it Spacey? Probably is,” he mused, before adding, “I love the idea that it might not be.”