American audiences have long shared a passionate love affair with the gangster film. We overlook the crimes and misdeeds of the many anti-heroes and sociopaths and have grown to love the Michael Corleones and Tony Sopranos as classic American characters. The connection between unchecked ambition, unpredictable family dynamics, and romanticized violence has served as a steady source of entertainment for decades.
Director Jack Topalian built on the legacy of the genre with his first feature film, “Betrayal,” which explores the world of Russian and Armenian organized crime and their inevitable impact on the families of those involved.
Many of the film’s themes are rooted in classic American gangster films, with Michael Cimino and Martin Scorsese mentioned as some of the directors Topalian drew inspiration from.
“I have always been a big fan of gangster movies. I’ve always found the complexity of the characters unique because they operate in two worlds,” claimed Topalian. “They are sociopaths and criminals that have good sides which most people are able to relate to.”
In addition to directing the film, Topalian is credited as a writer, producer, and takes the role as the film’s lead character.
“I made a decision a few years ago to get back into acting,” said Topalian. “I needed to create a vehicle for myself.”
He moved from San Francisco, where he had studied at the prestigious American Conservatory Theater, to Los Angeles to further pursue a career in the film industry. When it came time to develop the project that would ultimately become “Betrayal,” Topalian was ready with a story inspired by the spirit of the Los Angeles criminal underbelly.
While the film’s focus on family dynamics brings details of culture and traditions to the forefront of “Betrayal,” Topalian aimed to create a film that would resonate with a wide audience.
“For this movie, I was excited about creating an Armenian lead character because it is not something that I have seen in another movie like this,” he explained. “However, I specifically did not want to create an ‘Armenian’ film. To me, this film is about America.”
Topalian stars in the movie as Vazgen, a former leader of the Armenian mafia and family patriarch who is forced back into the criminal underground after his son mistakenly kills a member of the Russian mob. Pressures boil over in both worlds when the violence of organized crime spills over into family affairs.
Contemporary Los Angeles serves as the urban backdrop for the film, providing the characters with a sprawling setting that is home to large pockets of various ethnic groups.
“My character and story is fictional but it does contain reflections of truth. Unfortunately, there are elements of Armenian criminality in the city but that has a tendency to develop in a large city like LA or New York,” said Topalian. “Groups begin by offering protection to their own people in a new city, but it can develop into a situation where the strong prey on people’s fears.”
“Los Angeles is especially interesting because the images of sunshine hide a long history of underground criminal activity,” he added.
The moments of sunshine in “Betrayal” come in the form of relationships within a family that appears outwardly normal but become consumed by the corruption of the crime world. Ultimately, the film is driven by its characters strong personas and their struggles to compartmentalize the various worlds they operate in.
“I believe that each of us have two personalities: our personality at home and the other one outside that circle. This basic concept is true with gangsters, too,” said Topalian. “The characters are caught between two worlds. They may be good people deep down who would give anything for their children but they are forced to live with the choices of their past.”
“Betrayal” is currently screening at the MGN Five Star Cinema in Glendale.