"The Greatest Trick the Devil Ever Pulled Was Convincing the World He Didn't Exist" - An Analysis of How Film-makers of The Usual Suspects Achieved the Shocking Effect

Term Paper, 2006

14 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 The Audience in Film Theories
2.1 Behaviour and Attitude towards Films in General
2.2 Manipulable Audience?

3 Background Information about The Usual Suspects
3.1 Character Constellation
3.2 Plot Summary

4 The Portrayal of Verbal Kint
4.1 Narrative Means to Create Kint's Innocence
4.2 Technical Means to Create Kint's Innocence
4.3 Hints to the truth

5 Conclusion


1 Introduction

When the film The Usual Suspects was released in 1995 nobody knew it would eventually be rated as one of the best films of all time.[1] The appeal of the film lies within its cleverly structured narrative and its unique way of making the viewer want to watch the film again in a different light. The Usual Suspects is one of those films you have to watch at least twice to get close to the truth of what is being told. During the second watching you will ask yourself if you are really seeing the same film and the same character, because you were sure that Verbal Kint seemed incredibly harmless the first time around while he comes across very differently the second time. That is the question that shall be examined in the course of this paper in which I want to analyse how Bryan Singer, the film's director, achieved his aim of creating a completely innocent character in the course of the film, only to let the audience find out that Kint might be the criminal mastermind behind the whole scheme. How do the film-makers achieve the portrayal of the harmless Kint, and how does he come across in the second watching? By choosing The Usual Suspects, this paper also serves as an example of how audiences can be manipulated. Therefore, I will also have a look at the role and the behaviour of an audience.

First of all, we will concern ourselves with a film theory developed by Kracauer examining the role of an audience and the effects films might have on it. We will analyse how audiences feel and behave during the experience of a film screening and how their minds function at the time. Secondly, I will shortly introduce the film The Usual Suspects with its most important characters and its plot, before I, thirdly, want to go into the analysis of the creation of Verbal Kint's character, and scrutinise how Singer worked with narrative and technical means to leave behind a puzzled audience. To achieve that, I will pick a few scenes from the film and analyse them in respect to their filmic realisation.

I hope that this paper will thoroughly answer the question of how an audience let themselves be manipulated by a feature film and what effects certain filmic means can achieve if properly deployed. Towards the end, all the gathered information will shortly be summarised and a conclusion will be expressed.

2 The Audience in Film Theories

2.1 Behaviour and Attitude towards Films in General

First of all, I want to present a view on the role of an audience in film theories and examine the effects that a film might have on a viewer. Siegfried Kracauer portrays the audience in his book Theorie des Films and that depiction shall serve as a basis for this paper. Since Kracauer wrote this book when televison sets were not as spread as they are today, we will concentrate on the experience that viewers made in cinemas. Kracauer mostly analysed silent films, but has also lived through the development of talkies. Some critics argued that his theory cannot be applied to non-silent films, because sound and speech give a film a hint of reality which makes the audience aware of the fictional character of what they are watching. Kracauer, however, dismissed that critique himself. Whether a film is silent or not, from a really filmish film one can expect it to influence the audience in a way that is not comparable to different media (Kracauer 215).

According to Kracauer, the audience is compulsively attracted to the moving image, because it addresses several human senses. That fact generates an accumulation of shocklike emotions in which the audience is absorbed. In the same breath, the viewers identify with the images on screen. In the process, they lose their identities for the duration of the film, because they have the impression that, what they are watching is themselves being in the film. It is, as if the images forced the viewer by their mere presence to unreflectingly adapt to the image's indefinable and often amorphous shapes. Accordingly, films tend to weaken the viewer's consciousness supported by the darkness that is surrounding him and taking him even further from reality. Darkness not only cuts him off from reality, but also from environmental circumstances that are necessary for him to pass appropriate judgements. Because of the weakened consciousness, Kracauer compares films to dreams in which audiences relax and soak up every impression. Hence, films tend to rid the viewers of their own emotions and completely absorb them in the experience. People have often compared the medium film to drugs in relation to both their potentials of causing addictions (Kracauer 216 – 218).

All the points mentioned bear a lot of danger if used for manipulative aims, most notably in political contexts. However, people cannot only be manipulated by watching propaganda material, but also by watching feature films. In the next section, we will have a look at the influential capabilities of films on people.

2.2 Manipulable Audience?

Having had a look at Kracauer's theory, we can conclude that audiences seem to give away the power over their our consciousnesses to the hands of film-makers. We have to keep in mind, though, that this is firstly a one-sided theory, secondly that there are a lot of contradicting theories and thirdly that all of this only applies during the length of the respective films. However, in the course of this paper we shall see that Kracauer's theory is not too far fetched when having a closer look at the film The Usual Suspects and the audience's reaction to it.

As already mentioned above, one of Kracauer's points is that films weaken the viewer's mind and this weakening ultimately leads him to unreflectingly taking over what is presented on screen. That mechanism bears a lot of dangerous potential in terms of possibilities to manipulate audiences. Not without good reason are films compared to a hypnosis. The viewer doesn't have a chance than to underlie the proposed suggestions that try to penetrate his empty mind. Accordingly, Kracauer thinks of film as an unrivalled propaganda instrument (Kracauer 218).

Most of the time an audience identifies with the protagonist, sometimes even if it the protagonist is one of the villains. It lies in the nature of things. The protagonist is the one that shares most of his time with the audience. That way it is possible to let audiences identify with characters who are clearly the bad guys[2] as has happened in Léon – The Professional or The Godfather. By including an identification point the audience will accept everything that is shown to them as true, because they naturally trust the character they identify with.

After having had a look at the audience's reactions to films in general in the section before, we can state that the images that are presented on screen have an overwhelming effect on an audience. That effect goes as far as weakening the viewer's power of judgement and their sense of scrutiny of what is being shown. In conclusion, if a film is intelligently made, it can trick the audience into believing whatever the film-makers want them to.

Of course, all of the above mentioned seems to be true in theory, and might have hit the nerve of the time Kracauer wrote his book in. To get back to the topic of this paper, today, people are more careful when watching films, they are more used to so called twist endings.

Back in 1995 when The Usual Suspects was released, though, there was no M. Night Shyamalan[3] around to exploit twist endings, so the audience was still more or less ignorant to that kind film technique and fell for the twist. Later in the paper, I want to point out how the film-makers of The Usual Suspects achieved the shock-effect that the ending had on the audience. First of all, let's have a look at a few background information about The Usual Suspects before going into analytical detail.


[1] Currently ranked number 16 of the 250 best films on the biggest movie data base on the internet, the imdb.com (Internet Movie Data Base)

[2] and often quite disgusting characters when objectively scrutinised

[3] M. Night Shyamalan is the director of The Sixth Sense and The Village

Excerpt out of 14 pages


"The Greatest Trick the Devil Ever Pulled Was Convincing the World He Didn't Exist" - An Analysis of How Film-makers of The Usual Suspects Achieved the Shocking Effect
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  (Department of English and Linguistics)
Studying Media
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ISBN (Book)
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An Analysis of How Film-makers of The Usual Suspects Achieved the Shocking Effect the Ending had on an Audience
Greatest, Trick, Devil, Ever, Pulled, Convincing, World, Didn, Exist, Analysis, Film-makers, Usual, Suspects, Achieved, Shocking, Effect, Studying, Media
Quote paper
Sarah Rusch (Author), 2006, "The Greatest Trick the Devil Ever Pulled Was Convincing the World He Didn't Exist" - An Analysis of How Film-makers of The Usual Suspects Achieved the Shocking Effect, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/63071


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