Variations on a Theme, No. 6: The Usual Suspects (1995)

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John Ottman – The Usual Suspects (1995, dir. Bryan Singer)

Winner at the 1996 Academy Awards: Luis Bacalov, Il Postino (aka The Postman) (1994, dir. Michael Radford)

You don’t often see a composer pulling double duty on a film, contributing both to the music and to another technical component of the production process, but maestro John Ottman wrote the score for Bryan Singer’s thriller The Usual Suspects (1995) and edited the film too. As an editor, Ottman was in charge of piecing this masterful jigsaw of a neo-noir together, while as a composer he created some of my favorite score work of the 1990s. I would even go so far as to say his “Main Theme” (1) is my favorite film theme of that decade, striking the ideal balance between danger and melancholy (love the sound of the horns starting around two minutes in!) as well as setting the tone for a crime drama that keeps you guessing until the end. You know that you’re not in for a run-of-the-mill heist movie; the music indicates that much more lies in store for the characters and for the spectators. “New York’s Finest” (2) adds a little energy with a tap-happy tension that sets the viewer on edge, but “The Greatest Trick” (3), which appears in the film’s final scene, returns to the thematic interplay of mystery and intrigue heard in the main theme (especially thanks to the cascading waves of piano and spooky flute), a note-perfect composition considering what happens in the last few minutes of the film. Bravo, John Ottman: you were a key figure in shaping one of the best films of the last twenty years.

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