“The Usual Suspects” received two Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor Kevin Spacey and Best Original Screenplay.
Easter Egg: On the main page of Side B, arrow up to highlight “The Usual Suspects” in yellow type. Click enter, and you'll be taken to the code page. Select the four items in chronological order and you'll be taken to the interview of Editor/Composer John Ottman by Jeff Bond, Senior editor of Film Score Monthly (17:41), and interview outtakes (with Benicio Del Toro, Chaz Palminteri, Kevin Pollak, Stephen Baldwin, and Bryan Singer) separately (3:01). The correct order if you must know is: Quartet, Guatemala, Redfoot, Broken cup, select these in order (by pressing enter on each one) and your sub-menu will appear.
Made when director Brian Singer was a mere 27 years old, "The Usual Suspects" has deservedly maintained a reputation as a solid piece of filmmaking, and its success lies in a beautifully written script by Christopher McQuarrie, skilled direction from then-newcomer Singer, and amazing editing from versatile composer/editor John Ottman.
MGM's new Special Edition DVD of the film (that comes with a transparent ‘shadow' sleeve over the amaray case) contains both anamorphic and full screen versions, with crisp transfers that show some minor artifacting in a few solid backgrounds. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel cleverly gave the film a look that belied the production's $4 million budget, and the elegant widescreen compositions and colours reflect the methodical and cold timbre of the film's characters. Muted colours and scenic tones are stable in each of the shots, and the film's interior and exterior locations have balanced blacks and dark blues, with the interior ship sequence and various night shots looking quite beautiful.
The film's Dolby 5.1 mix reflects the care director Singer and editor/composer Ottman invested in the various sound effects, overlapping dialogue, and orchestral soundtrack elements, and the mix faithfully recreates the original theatrical experience. The dialogue levels are stable from the centre channel, and never overwhelmed by sound effects and music.
Ottman recorded a new commentary track for the DVD, and the film's construction is analyzed with a heavy emphasis on the editing. Film fans shouldn't be afraid of the technical details, since Ottman uses many sequences as examples of editorial challenges -trimming redundant script ideas, smoothening technical fumbles - and divine moments of creative inspiration that can transform a standard action montage into something noteworthy. It's no surprise that Ottman received a British Academy Award [BAFTA] in 1995 for his brilliant editing, and his down-to-earth dissections of key sequences make this DVD a mandatory reference for film students and filmmakers alike. (More info on the film, including Real Audio clips from the music recording sessions and other goodies, can be seen at the editor/composer's witty website.)
The DVD's other commentary track, previously available on the original laserdisc release and first DVD(s), has director Singer and writer McQuarrie discussing the film's typical production aspects. The friendship between the two comes through quite clearly; McQuarrie's screenplay is frequently praised, and while the writer laments the loss of favourite moments and choice dialogue, it's clear "The Usual Suspects" would never have evolved into such a fine film without a solid, densely textured screenplay.
On Side B, the core documentary is actually divided into 3 main sections:
"Pursuing the Suspects" uses new interviews from the film's 5 leading actors (plus Chazz Palminteri), director Singer, writer McQuarrie, and editor/composer Ottman to dissect the film's casting process and the actors' approach to their respective roles. Del Toro articulates his bizarre mumbling ploy (which repeatedly stole attention from his fellow thespians), Spacey recalls his choice to physically transform himself into the mis-shaped Verbal, and Baldwin colorfully explains his first meeting with a patient Brian Singer.
"Doin' Time with the Suspects" examines the experience of working with an ensemble cast. Though it's clear from the interviews that a lack of a leading role resulted in a film with colourful, memorable characters, the determination of director Singer comes through every time, as each actor expresses high gratitude for Singer's open mind and patience.
"Keyser Soze - Lie or Legend?" dissects the creation of the film's Machiavellian villain, and editor Ottman discusses the challenge in constructing an ending which minimizes some of the film's unresolved mysteries, yet makes it clear what individual was ultimately responsible for the dockyard massacre.
The three sections are nicely produced, although the editor has tracked the bulk of each section with far too many score excerpts. Sometimes the music suits the recollections and scene snippets, but often the wall-to-wall material is overbearing; several lighthearted and humorous anecdotes are underscored with brooding material, which immediately distracts the viewer, and editorially makes no sense. Though the documentary's facts are plentiful, Less Is More should have been observed in the music department.
"The Usual Suspects" score is also discussed quite extensively in one of the DVD's two Easter Eggs. "John Ottman with Film Historian" is a visually static but informative Q&A session with Film Score Monthly's Jeff Bond, who manages to cover several aspects of Ottman's score and career, including the always contentious issue of a film's temporary music track; and the current monetary and artistic demands which have affected the film composer's job. The second Easter Egg is a short montage of interview outtakes, featuring Kevin Pollak's magical eye trick, and Brian Singer's opinions on the "Jaws" documentary (missing from the DVD, parts of anyway) and multiple DVD releases for a single title - stuff that we've heard before, but elicits a generous viewer smile, since it's coming from a filmmaker and fellow movie buff. Both segments are visually clean, but the sound levels and uneven, and part of the Bond/Ottman session is somewhat muted because a mike slipped down a few inches.
Finishing off the DVD are two short featurettes: the original publicity featurette made at the time of the film's shooting (with a much younger Singer looking like a production assistant); and "Heisting Cannes and the Usual Suspects," with Handycam shots of the bewildered and later exhausted actors and director, as they're treated like rock stars at the film's premiere. Eight fuzzy TV spots and an international trailer are present, and editor Ottman also provides an informative intro for the film's original theatrical trailer which avoided the "Pulp Fiction" variation the studio had wanted to use (scored with pumped up synth music, and "cool dialogue" from the film). The editor/composer also provides brief explanatory intros for the five deleted scenes - mostly extensions taken from a worn work print - and the film's Gag Reel (which features a goofy music video finale with the Keyser Soze rap).
As John Ottman amusingly states in his commentary, "The Usual Suspects" was regarded by himself, director Singer, and screenwriter McQuarrie as "a glorified student film," but the wealth of technical and archival information on MGM's DVD should make it clear the film's gradual climb to a modern classic is deserved.
© 2002 Mark R. Hasan