A radio shock jock who made listeners tune in to hear him take on the most obnoxious views in the American Midwest by being just as obnoxious to them right back went too far recently. After a show where he, a Jewish man, invited racists and antisemites to call up and air their prejudices, he managed to anger some very dangerous people: white supremacist groups, which sent a contingent to intercept him at his car in an underground car park, where he was shot dead and graffiti was sprayed across his body. The FBI are investigating, but what of the denizens of the heartland who used to tune into his show? People like Katie Phillips (Debra Winger) and Gary Simmons (Tom Berenger)?
Costa-Gavras directed a Joe Eszterhas screenplay? Yes, it happened, though this was off the back of the writer's big hit thriller Jagged Edge, not after he had become one of the most notorious scribes in Hollywood after Basic Instinct. The director had enjoyed a hit himself with Missing, but found the rest of the eighties rather more hit and miss, with this piece receiving mixed reviews, largely because its central premise contained too many illogicalities to prevent it being anything other than a bumpy ride as far as drama went. Despite that, it did OK at the box office and has since picked up a cult following, though you do wonder at the motives of the movie's most ardent fans given its language.
Like Oliver Stone's Talk Radio released a few months later, the storyline was inspired by the real-life murder of Alan Berg, a shock jock like the one played by Richard Libertini at the beginning of this. He was targeted by extreme right wingers who pulled the trigger on him, literally, and made headline news across the world as evidence that Ronald Reagan's America was breeding rampant racism and hatred as an effect of his pro-nationalist stance, though here we were guided to see that section of society were still wont to believe that the Jews and the blacks were working in tandem to take over American Government no matter how right of centre the occupants of the White House were.
What did this have to do with Katie and Gary? If you did not know, every review would spoil it for you, so here goes likewise: Katie, who romances widower Gary to get close to him, is not all she seems, and about twenty minutes into their narrative we discover she is an FBI agent gone undercover to seek the killers of the broadcaster. Is she on the right track? It would be a short film if she wasn't, and Betrayed stretched past the two-hour mark with its thriller tendencies well to the fore as the agent, actually named Cathy Weaver in her day job, uncovers a cell of a neo-Nazi movement which is getting up to such nasty business as staging The Most Dangerous Game-style lynchings as sport, holding holiday camps to plan the takeover of America through terrorist acts, and robbing banks to fund themselves.
The banks, they believe, are controlled by the Jews, which justifies their actions in their own twisted thoughts. So you see, there were some blatant thriller shenanigans here, but Costa-Gavras wanted you to think over the damage that racism can do to ordinary minds, which has the script populated by characters mouthing the most awful language to demonstrate that. How much of this you could take was a matter of tolerance, but it was uncomfortable to see how much Eszterhas was keen to employ it for shock effect himself, sort of like he was getting away with something because we were intended to find it offensive and not enjoy it. There was an element of a little kid getting away with saying rude words, not least because there were genuine little kids doing precisely that throughout. If that didn't turn you off, Cathy's actions were difficult to believe, going as far as regularly sleeping with ringleader Gary and even falling in love with him; she made little sense as a professional, more as a statement against prejudice. But for all the misgivings, it did keep you watching to the ambiguous ending. Music by Bill Conti.
[The BFI Blu-ray of this has the following features:
Presented in High Definition
Guardian Interview with Costa-Gavras (1984, 71 mins, audio only): the Oscar winning director discusses his career in this interview recorded four years before the release of Betrayed
Newly recorded audio commentary by filmmaker and film historian Jim Hemphill
Interview with Joe Eszterhas (2013, 96 mins, audio only): recorded at The London Screenwriters Festival, the incomparable writer of Betrayed and Basic Instinct is interviewed by filmmaker and author Chris Jones and also fields questions from the audience
Interview with William Bradford Huie (1968, 30 mins): the journalist, author and civil rights activist is interviewed by Bernard Braden for his never broadcast series Now and Then
Original Theatrical Trailer
**FIRST PRESSING ONLY** Fully illustrated booklet with new essays by film writer and programmer Philip Concannon and film critic Jessica Kiang.]