the critics; CINEMA; Confused? You will be

The thrill of `The Usual Suspects' is that it re-mythologises the crime movie

"KEATON always said: "I don't believe in God, but I'm afraid of him," recalls the narrator of The Usual Suspects (15). "Well, I believe in God, and the only thing that scares me is Keyser Soze." The narrator is a harrowed, limping little man called "Verbal" Kint (Kevin Spacey), spilling the beans, or some of them, down at the station to a police officer (Chazz Palminteri). Keaton (Gabriel Byrne) is the ex-cop who may, or may not, have led Verbal and three others in a couple of elaborate heists. And Keyser Soze? Well, Keyser Soze may just be the most compelling creation in recent American film - even though we barely see him. He's the absence that haunts and taunts this ingenious movie.

The feeling of being outwitted in the cinema has become so rare that The Usual Suspects is as refreshing as a rain shower this summer. The whole plot would fill this page - it's a marathon run in a labyrinth. Time and location switch often enough for your bewilderment to be compounded by a kind of cinematic jet-lag. From "San Pedro, California - Last Night" to "New York - Six Weeks Ago" to today in Los Angeles - and back and forth. At the start of the movie, five known criminals are rounded up: Keaton; Verbal; "a top-notch entry man" (Stephen Baldwin); a devil-may- care explosives expert (Kevin Pollak); and a strangely effete figure in a crimson shirt (Benicio del Torro, whose every word comes out in a camp drawl). At the prompting of Palminteri, Spacey takes us through the crimes this quintet have committed: the heist of a police "taxi" for drugs money; the murder of a Los Angeles drugs dealer; and, finally, the destruction of a boat supposedly containing cocaine. For Palminteri, and the audience, two questions nag. Why did the five end up blowing up a boat that turned out to have no drugs or money on board? And, were they all pawns of the awesome and mysterious Keyser Soze?

Keyser Soze is the figure before whom these hardened criminals quake. His lawyer (Pete Postlethwaite), seemingly Keyser's representative on earth, hands out dossiers to each of the five, listing details of their lives and misdemeanours - personal compendiums of blackmail. We learn that Soze, a Turk, reached his pinnacle of power by having the will "to do the one thing the other guy wouldn't". For Keyser, this meant killing his own family, rather than see them taken hostage. We watch the leaping cardiograph of a charred survivor of the boat bomb. A thin smile plays around the unbandaged side of his face, as he recalls how he "saw the devil". There is a more than earthly cachet to Keyser Soze: the name itself combines European words for "king" and "saviour".

Metaphysical mumbo-jumbo? Of course - but the thrill of The Usual Suspects is that, after years of movie demythologising, it re-mythologises the crime movie. The tendency now in films, and in television shows like NYPD Blue and Homicide, is to stress the ordinariness of crime, even murder. The Usual Suspects suggests that it's not always the usual suspects, with the obvious motives, who are guilty; there are cleverer minds who control them. Verbal explains why the ex-policeman Keaton failed to get to grips with Soze: "To a cop, the explanation is never that complicated. It's always simple." The Usual Suspects restores the good, tortuous name of the conspiracy theory.

This is the second film directed by Bryan Singer and written by Christopher McQuarrie. Their first collaboration, Public Access, a David Lynch-like tale of dark deeds in small-town America, was shamefully underrated. But it mixed the same cocktail of Gothic menace and off-beat humour. It may be that McQuarrie is the bigger talent. The script in The Usual Suspects is, early on, let down by hyperbolic direction, which distracts us from the ravelling plot. But Singer is a superb action director - deft, clear and exciting, when filming anything involving guns or explosions. He also handles well his ensemble cast. Spacey is the stand-out - an Academy Award nominee, surely, come next spring.

The film's coup de grace is as elegant as it is unexpected. The whole movie plays back in your mind in perfect clarity - and turns out to be a completely different movie to the one you've been watching (rather better, in fact). Further analysis risks spoiling the film. See it, instead, and enjoy it. Then see it again, and understand it.

Jean Charles Tacchella's The Man in My Life (15) is the sort of limp, carnal comedy, which will one day get billed in ITV's night-time schedule as "The Continental Movie", flattering to deceive with the promise of titillation. She (Maria de Madeiros from Pulp Fiction) is a daffy gold- digger, with narrow Sphinx-like eyes and horizons even more cramped. He (Thierry Fortineau) is a half-hearted misanthrope, not so much scornful as indifferent to the world. They're made for each other, but are stuck in the intransigence that single status breeds. She eventually marries a food critic, who complains about the quality of the sea-urchin sauce at their reception. So it dribbles on - not exactly excruciatingly, but flimsily, without bite or inspiration.

To see how this sort of thing should be done, check out Ingmar Bergman's re-released 1955 romantic roundelay, Smiles of a Summer Night (PG). It is the archetypal sexual comedy and yet remains fresh, mainly through Bergman's crisp aphoristic script and lyrical camera-work, where its imitators have staled. Bergman's lovers are touching as well as droll, poignantly trapped in their self-absorption. There is a scene when the philandering lawyer (the wonderfully conceited Gunnar Bjornstrand) and his actress- former-mistress (ravishing Eva Dahlbeck) have a conversation with their heads pointed in different directions - locked in their own worlds, yet entirely natural. For all the frippery, this is still a bitingly anarchic film. Never has the terror and joy of sexual submission been better expressed than in the confession of Count Malcolm's wife: "He comes to me at night and robs me of my reason." The lawyer's mother-in-law, playing cards, hits upon the film's sour moral: "Patience is the only thing that demands incorruptible morality."

Safe Passage (15) is an intelligent, slightly inconsequential drama about a family awaiting news of a son in the Marines, caught up in a terrorist attack abroad. Sam Shepard and Susan Sarandon play the parents, and have one fine scene sniping about the past. Robert Allan Ackerman directs with grace and discretion. But the script is schematic, parcelling out a crisis to each of the couple's seven sons. We're left thankful that there were not seven brides for these seven brothers.

A flying visit to the Drambuie Edinburgh Film Festival last weekend revealed the event to be in a state of transition. The new festival director, the youthful Mark Cousins, strode around in a pin-stripe suit, like an arbitrage dealer. The effects of his energy can be seen in the programme, which is better organised and more vibrant than in recent years. Cousins has played to Edinburgh's traditional strength as a forum for retrospectives (the complete works of Stanley Donen were screened, with introductory interviews.) He has also introduced a series of detailed - "Scene-by-Scene" - lectures given by movie luminaries, which ought to be emulated by the National Film Theatre. He has been less successful at mounting premieres of hot new films, and clearly needs to forge links with distributors.

There is no Scottish section, but the festival provides a fascinating panorama of the nation's film-making. Two features, David Hayman's The Near Room and Gillies Mackinnon's Small Faces, presented harsh, intermittently powerful views of Glasgow - a lurid night-time noir world for Hayman; Sixties gang warfare for Mackinnon. As in most British features these days, insufficient investment had gone into script development. That is where the BBC-funded trio of shorts, the nattily titled Tartan Shorts, scored. A tale of a woman coping with encroaching old age, which had a tender surprise ending (Dancing); a shaggy dog story about a man searching for a pen on a train (The Pen); and an exercise in supense, as a kid gets trapped in a freezer (The Fridge) - they all hooked you early, and were beautifully worked out. They also reflect the Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of Scottish movies (aptly displayed in the city of Stevenson) - its rift between social comedy and urban misery.

The two best films I saw both had connections with former festival directors. Hunger Artist, a poignant 42-minute adaptation of the Kafka story, was made by the production company of ex- director Jim Hickey. In Search of Clarity, a documentary about the architecture of New York firm Gwathmey-Siegal, which was stirring as well as informative, was made by Murray Grigor, director in the festival's heyday (1967-72). In every sense, Grigor provides the standard for Cousins to aspire to.

Cinema details: Review, page 60.

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