Movie: The Usual Suspects
The lineup scene in The Usual Suspects may be only the second-best scene in the movie, but is easily the most recognizable of the film. The scene begins with five men trudging into a police station’s lineup room, the men clearly annoyed at this inconvenience. Narrating the scene is Verbal (Kevin Spacey), doubling as one of the five men. A truck has been hijacked and the police have brought in some of the usual suspects for such a crime, asking each of them to recite a line that was said to the truck driver.
The genius of the scene is how much is packed into it. Obviously, it explains the film’s title. Nothing flashy or witty or clever, just blam! – here they are. Once the men are all facing the one-way glass, we notice the symmetry in their order. Tallest in the middle to shortest on the ends. As a group, the five complement each other, Verbal commenting “It was all the cops’ fault. You don’t put guys like that into a room together.”
One by one, they read the line and we find out who these men are. First, Hockney (Kevin Pollack). He starts with a sigh dripping with disdain, then delivers a bored and monotone reading of the line. Second is McManus (Stephen Baldwin). He gives an eyeroll and expression screaming “this is bullshit,” then launches into a cartoon villain version of the line just to prove his point. The others are smiling and trying not to laugh as McManus hands the card with the line to Fenster (Benicio del Toro). Fenster steps forward and starts to laugh…the moment where the scene goes from great to iconic.
As interviews later reveal, the laughter was unscripted, as was McManus smacking Fenster on the arm to get him to stop laughing, Fenster returning the smack. This is the moment where the audience realizes these men are no common criminals and the cops are out of their league. It also shows the bond between McManus and Fenster, later confirmed to us by Verbal that the two always work together. Fenster delivers a line that is barely intelligible, one detective saying “In English please,” and the men are laughing again.
Fourth is Keaton (Gabriel Byrne). Channeling Fenster and Hockney, he over-enunciates while going as deadpan as possible. He clearly doesn’t want to be there, the next scene revealing why. Finally, we get Verbal’s recitation. Despite appearing as the least threatening (sweater-vest, floral button-up shirt, physical disabilities), he gives a menacing look and delivery establishing him as potentially the most dangerous person in the room. But, since we’re distracted by the laughter and narration, we easily miss it.
While the reveal at the end is probably the best scene in the film (and arguably greatest reveal in the history of film), it doesn’t land as perfectly without the lineup scene.