Thursday, August 17, 2017

cinema obscura: Costa-Gavras' "Betrayed" (1988), unfortunately it's time has come

Given that racism and racists in this country have been emboldened in the past few days, it seems an apt time to revisit a Costa-Gavras cautionary tale of real-life horror. "Betrayed," made nearly 20 years ago, deals head-on with the white supremacist movement but at the time of its release, the neo-Nazis of the film seemed like a distant fringe group, whose activities were far, far away from your local cineplex - not so uncomfortably close.

The screenplay was written by Joe Eszterhas, who was hot at the time (the era's Aaron Sorkin), specializing in heavy-handed incendiary topics, and who perhaps was prematurely dismissed by easily annoyed movie critics.

Eszterhas, to his credit, knew how to take what might be unsettling and even perverse on paper and turn it into material for a popular movie. And he usually placed a woman - his heroine - in a situation that in earlier movies was for-men-only. (Back in the day, Eszterhas was labeled a sexist, but from the current vantage point, he really wasn't.) In this case, the game Debra Winger plays an FBI agent named Cathy who changes her name to Katie when she goes undercover to entrap a supremacist-farmer named Gary, played by an equally game, eerily effective Tom Berenger.

To accomplish this, Cathy ingratiates her with Gary with the idea of starting a faux romance. She lets him conveniently pick her up in a rural bar, gets to know his children and his mother and pretty much becomes a fixture in his life, initially much to her displeasure. Gary has a penchant for making such comments as ''We have to return America to real Americans'' (sound familiar?), while another hate-monger declares that "people should be able say what they want, regardless of how ugly it may be.''

The shrewd Eszterhas then does something jaw-dropping: He has Cathy actually fall for Gary, in spite of herself and in spite of his hateful behavior. By now, he has an emotional grip on her that she hardly expected.

Cathy is understandably conflicted, inspiring the ever-resourceful Winger to turn in another masterful performance of quiet intelligence.

At the time, I remember her (and Berenger) being better than the film itself. But with the passing of time, perhaps we've caught up, however grudgingly, with the film's relentless creepiness. Certainly, Costa-Gavras doesn't hesitate to "showcase" (for lack of a better word) the obscene viciousness of Gary and his all-white, all-male friends, his "buddies," who casually praise Nazis while reviling Jews, Blacks and homosexuals.

No, the filmmaker doesn't hedge. Back in '88, he and Eszterhas were accused of lacking subtlety, of rubbing our faces in the ugliness. Which seems pathetically naive these days. I've no idea who now owns "Betrayed," which was made by United Artists, but some resourceful art-house programmer or DVD decision-maker should do something with it.

Like right now.

Note in Passing: Turner Classic Movies will screen the ever prescient "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962) - produced by Frank Sinatra, directed by John Frankenheimer and penned by George Axelrod - tomorrow night (Saturday, August 19th) @ 8 (est).  A must watch.


~the original poster art for "Betrayed"
~Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer 1988 © 

~a scene from "Betrayed"
~Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer 1988 © 


Stephen said...

amazing, Joe. Now you need to put together an entire list of movies related to the horror show we're experiencing.

joe baltake said...

Are you possibly Stephen K. Bannon? Even if you are, I like your idea.

Kevin Deany said...

Such a list should include the (sadly) still relevant BLACK LEGION (1937), from Warner Bros., with Humphrey Bogart joining a Klan-like group who protest the influx of immigrants into the country. Bogart joins after losing a job promotion at is factory to, I think, a Pole. I thought of this movie after watching the footage of last week's rally.

Charlotte said...

Tina Fey did a (sadly) hilarious take on the Charlottesville tragedy, ending the routine eating white cake. If I recalls, there's a scene in "Betrayed" that involves white cake. I believe the Berenger character compares it to white America. (And my name is not fake!)

joe baltake said...

Charlotte- Yes, there is a scene in "Betrayed" when Berenger's mother serves white cake. And I believe your name - you've written in here many times. -J

Marilyn Halprin said...

Joe! I love your comments on film but I adore your politics even more. Pleas keep mixing them up. -M.H.

Sheila said...

There's a memorable scene in "The Cardinal" in which Murray Hamilton and his supremacist group beat Ossie Davis and then Tom Tyron when he comes to Davis' defense. I haven't seen that film in years but that sequence has stayed with me.

D.S. said...

will i sleep after i watch it?

J.U. said...

Great timely post. I've seen this movie a few times and was always struck that there are many elements of the Berenger character that make you like him, feeling awkward to say that he's a nice guy except for the fact that he's a violent white supremacist. I paused over your comparison of Esterhaus with Sorkin, the latter of whom I really admire for his writing and dialogue skills. But I gather you're not comparing those skills, but rather the fact that neither is very subtle in making their points.

joe baltake said...

Actually, I was thinking of the two as star writers who were/are often the auteurs of the films bearing their names.

Jenny said...

Good post. Good point of view.