September 29, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

Sure, it’s one of Hollywood’s most cherished catchphrases, but word of mouth has its dark side. Just ask Bryan Singer — if you can hear him, that is. Lately the effusive 28-year-old director has spent so much time jawboning about The Usual Suspects that his voice has begun to evaporate under the strain.

The reason: When Singer isn’t responding to the press, he’s fielding questions from moviegoers who stop him on the street and even ring him up at home. They ask about the blast on the boat, the man in the Jaguar, the fax from the hospital. They replay the film’s serpentine finale. And most of all, they grapple to identify the dark heart of Suspects: a phantom druglord known as Keyser Söze. ”I had a 17-year-old call me,” Singer rasps. ”He had already seen it six times. I was amazed.”

He’s not the only one. Just weeks ago, few suspected that Suspects — a Byzantine thriller bereft of megastars and budgeted at a paltry $5.5 million — would break out of the cappuccino circuit. But Suspects is shaping up as a cult phenomenon, especially on the Internet, where cybernauts bicker over the fine points of the plot.

Oddly, that fervent following is based on what once looked like the film’s thorniest obstacle: It’s complicated. In telling the story of a botched heist, Suspects juggles a huge cast (notably Kevin Spacey, Gabriel Byrne, and Chazz Palminteri) and weaves a mind-warping web of flashbacks, revelations, and lies. That might sound like a death knell in an age of short-attention-span triumphs like Mortal Kombat, but Suspects keeps luring people into its labyrinth. ”If you see the movie again, you see all these little things that you didn’t see before,” says Singer. ”It’s specifically designed that way.”

It was also marketed that way. Early on, folks at Gramercy who’d read the script kept tripping on…that name. ”A lot of people were having problems with this Keyser Söze thing,” recalls Steven Flynn, Gramercy’s senior V.P. of marketing. ”You wouldn’t believe how many pronunciations I got.” (The correct one: KY-zer SO-say.) Hoping to ”turn a negative into a positive,” Flynn decided to sell the very thing that was confusing everyone: Two weeks before Suspects hit screens, ”Who is Keyser Söze?” posters appeared at bus stops. If people couldn’t pronounce the mysterious moniker, they soon found out how. ”In the TV spots,” Flynn laughs, ”we said Keyser Söze’s name about 10 times.” Meanwhile, in the tradition of The Crying Game, critics kept Suspects‘ nail-biting finale a secret: ”The press has been very respectful not to give away the ending.”

But who is Keyser Söze? As it turns out, even Singer and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie have different ideas about his identity — and about what happens in their own film. ”I have a theory,” says Singer. ”Unfortunately, it differs from Chris’ theory — and he’s the writer.” So who’s right? ”Your answer,” he offers craftily, ”is infinitely more relevant than mine.”

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