First things first : let us try to shed light upon the cryptic title chosen for my essay. What strikes me most in The Usual Suspects is the aura of mystique that surrounds the mere name of what remains, ultimately, a fictional persona ; Let me introduce Keyser Söze. Every time someone intones his name, be it Verbal Kint himself or, even better, the seriously charred Hungarian, characters in the movie as well as spectators sense a rise in tension that borders on suffocation. To wit: the first scene at the hospital featuring the cooled-down Human Torch when he begins blabbering in Magyar, duly resented by the officer in charge, and then starts to repete, frantically, the four syllables Key-ser Sö-ze. This very scene is, to me, emblematic of the movie's stifling atmosphere. The simple utterance of this name could be said to encapsulate most of the linguistic functions delineated by Jakobson :
- referential function: the message is centered upon the message itself, with "Keyser Söze" being meaningful in and of itself.
- expressive function: the message has an effect on the one who tells it, see, for instance, the fright on the Hungarian's face on the boat.
- conative function: the message has an effect on the addressee, see here the ashen faces of Verbal's four associates when Kobayashi mentions he is an envoy of this devil in disguise.
- phatic function: the message is used to maintain the dialogue, for example, when Verbal is being interviewed, the frequent cropping up of the name acts like a conversational driver.
- poetic function: "Keyser Söze," and its two trochees stressing the tutelary aspect of the Kaiser, reinforced by the incantatory way of referring to him throughout the movie.
Furthermore, "Söze", in Turkish, means "that talks too much", "verbal", a meaning that inevitably rings a bell with the personification of the myth, Kint himself. In the film's making-of, the creators reveal that they decided to change the name from Keyser Sume to Keyser Söze, the former moniker also belonging to a lawyer who feared the movie would be detrimental to his business. In the movie, the nickname "Verbal" is used as a humoristic trait, as Kint scarcely speaks and is supposed to be nothing more than a dumb cripple. The passageway from Keyser to Kint is thus a complete twist between an alleged mastermind and a pathetic con-man. Verbal becomes a two-headed Janus, one demonic, the other simplistic, and in the end, no one can tell what is real from what is false, given the guile of the almighty narrator.
"The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn't exist." This line, which is one of the most famous in the script, is a direct reference to Baudelaire's Le Joueur Généreux: "Mes chers frères, n'oubliez jamais, quand vous entendrez vanter le progrès des lumières, que la plus belle des ruses du diable est de vous persuader qu'il n'existe pas!" In this poem, Baudelaire tells the story of a man coming to terms with the Devil.
The recurrent motto "Keyser Söze" is therefore one of the major performative tricks ployed in The Usual Suspects' script. The mere evocation of his name suffices to conjure up a whole, devilish theogony which ends up creating such a powerful legend that it profusely nourrished our occidental folklore, proof of which is that Keyser Söze has now his own brand of clothing.
© Brice 2008