Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer. The oft-repeated lesson is learned once again in George Clooney’s The Ides of March, an air-tight thriller set against the backdrop of a political campaign that finds headstrong, manipulative alpha males turning on their trusted colleagues just to keep the professional aspirations afloat.
The dog-eat-dog mentality of Clooney’s methodical drama had us thinking of the most shocking cinematic betrayals in Hollywood’s sordid history. They are, by no means, the only examples. You could pull 100 vicious backstabbings from the film noir genre, alone. But these 10 are some of the most devastating, and therefore, the most memorable.
Judas, The Passion of the Christ (2004)
Any discussion on betrayal has to begin with history’s most infamous – Judas Iscariot’s selling of Jesus Christ to the chief priests for 30 pieces of silver. The apostle seals his betrayal with a kiss, an act that would be copied by countless storytellers over the years as a sign of disloyalty or duplicity. Though Judas has been captured for centuries in various forms of art, it’s Luca Lionello’s depiction in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ that sticks in our memory, perhaps because it’s the most recent vision of this biblical traitor.
Cypher, The Matrix (1999)
Where Judas sold out Christ, Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) betrays an obvious Christ-figure in Neo (Keanu Reeves), a gifted computer hacker pulled into the all-encompassing program known as the Matrix in order to tear the illusion down. Instead of silver, Cyper trades Neo for a steak, which he knows doesn’t “exist,” yet still tastes as juicy and delicious as he imagines. Like most of the characters on this list, Cypher pays the ultimate price for his betrayal, but not before costing the lives of several warriors close to Neo, Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and the ever-faithful Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne).
Joseph D. Pistone, Donnie Brasco (1997)
It’s a regular occurrence in undercover-agent pictures. In order to infiltrate a criminal organization, our hero must befriend an underling, gain their trust … and ultimately stab them in the back in order to complete the elaborate bust. Such is the case with Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco. Because the bonds formed between Johnny Depp’s FBI agent and Al Pacino’s middling mobster run so deep, Pistone’s eventual betrayal of a friendship based on lies breaks our heart. Expertly emotional portrayals by both men elevate Newell’s excellent Brasco, making it hard for us to -- as the wiseguys say -- “forget about it.”
Lando Calrissian, The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Surprises come at a fast and furious clip in the second half of Empire. Leia (Carrie Fisher) admits her true feelings for Han (Harrison Ford), right before he’s turned into a carbonite popsicle. Darth Vader clarifies his position in Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) heritage. But few shocks affected Star Wars fans as deeply as Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) turning his old friend Solo over to bounty hunter Boba Fett. And while Lando atones for his sins almost immediately, Williams has admitted in interviews that he still, to this day, must defend his character’s actions to angry Star Wars fans of all ages.
Robert Ford, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
What triggers betrayal? Films have taught us that resentment, fear and jealousy are the leading causes, and all three could be found in Robert Ford (Casey Affleck). Director Andrew Dominik’s contemplative drama examines the manipulative relationship between both men in the title, going so far as to suggest that Jesse James (Brad Pitt) forced Ford’s lethal betrayal so as to preserve his legacy. Either way, Bob’s cowardly act of shooting his fallen idol -- in the back, no less -- sends shockwaves, earning Assassination a spot on this list.
Mr. Orange, Reservoir Dogs (1992)
In the aftermath of a botched diamond heist, Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) drops all pretense and shares personal information with Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), who has been shot in the gut. Though an informant likely exists in Quentin Tarantino’s band of thieves, White refuses to believe it’s Orange, defiantly partaking in a Mexican standoff to defend his young friend’s honor. Yet in one of Tarantino’s final twists, Orange confesses his true identity to White, elevating Reservoir Dogs to “instant classic” status as it simultaneously ended White’s long, criminal run.
Aaron Stampler, Primal Fear (1996)
Defense attorneys have to believe their client if they have any chance of winning a legal battle and reversing their charges. And every piece of evidence obtained by attention-seeking Martin Vail (Richard Gere) suggests that stuttering, abused and schizophrenic altar boy Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton) is innocent of the charge of murdering Chicago’s archbishop. But in a killer late-game twist, Aaron betrays his attorney’s trust, confessing that his dual personality is nothing more than a convincing trick … and there isn’t anything Vail can do about it.
Capt. Dudley Smith, L.A. Confidential (1997)
Figuring out whom to trust in Curtis Hanson’s terrific film noir is damn near impossible. Straight-edge cop Exley (Guy Pearce) is surrounded by corruption, murder, sex scandals … and that’s on his own police force. But as is usually the case, betrayal runs all the way up the chain of command, and James Cromwell’s Capt. Dudley Smith reveals himself to be the ultimate traitor when he guns down Kevin Spacey’s marginally crooked cop, Vincennes. At least Jack has the wherewithal to whisper the telling name “Rollo Tomasi” with his dying breath, ensuring that Smith eventually will pay for his heinous crimes.
Fredo Corleone, The Godfather Part II (1974)
Betrayal between family members cuts deepest. And when that “family” is, you know, the Mafia, the cut often ends up being fatal. Just ask Fredo (a brilliant John Cazale), the “weak and stupid” Corleone son who grows tired of having to answer to his younger, patronizing brother, Michael (Al Pacino). Granted, Fredo’s inability to contemplate the criminal world often turns him into a puppet, manipulated by more powerful men. But by betraying Michael to Johnny Ola (Dominic Chianese) and Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) – an act confirmed with Michael’s Judas-inspired kiss – Fredo earns that permanent vacation spot at the bottom of Lake Tahoe.
Severus Snape, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011)
The ultimate undercover agent, Severus Snape’s deception of dark wizard Lord Voldemort spanned seven books and the bulk of eight films. Buried so deep behind enemy lines, Snape often had to make it look like he was betraying Dumbledore, the Order of the Phoenix, the Ministry of Magic and Harry Potter, himself. Thanks to Alan Rickman’s calculatedly chilly turn, even ardent Potter fans couldn’t be certain if Snape was for or against The Boy Who Lived. But in this summer’s spectacular finale, Snape’s unwillingness to give up Potter proved to be his final betrayal against Tom Riddle, and the foot in the door needed to bring Lord Voldemort down. The fact that Snape operated in shadows out of pure love for Harry’s mother, Lily, makes his story simultaneously beautiful and tragic.