A Pinter tale told backward, with laughs and insights

Harold Pinter's plays often translate well to the screen, as adaptations of ''The Caretaker'' and ''The Birthday Party'' have proved. But even by this high standard, Betrayal is an uncommonly fine piece of work - a literate, engaging, and sometimes hilarious experience that's built on a logic all its own.

Basically, it's the story of the kind of morally questionable but sadly familiar relationship that Hollywood has often dealt with over the years: a love triangle involving a husband, a wife, and the ''best friend'' she's having an affair with. Pinter gives the situation a bravura twist, though, telling the tale backward. After a wordless and stunningly filmed introduction, the first scene shows the adulterous couple hashing over their past, long after the fling has ended. Subsequent scenes trace the affair back through the years, ending with their very first romantic encounter.

It's a bold way to shed new light on familiar territory, and Pinter makes it work surpassingly well. Instead of plot suspense - Will the lovers be caught? Will they tire of each other? - there's an emotional tension that springs from our knowledge of what will happen, as well as our ignorance of what has happened. The result is a deftly tangled web of feelings and events that grows more involving with each revelation-in-reverse.

Adding to the fascination is Pinter's evocative language, combined with tactful treatment (the R rating reflects a couple of vulgar words) and the zestful performances of an excellent cast. As the woman of the piece, Patricia Hodge has an apt mixture of force and vulnerability. As her lover, Jeremy Irons is smooth but never slick, engaging our full attention without having to reach for it. Ben Kingsley, also the star of ''Gandhi,'' is somewhere near perfect with his gentle, wry, faintly menacing portrayal of the betrayed husband who also does his share of betraying.

It's a splendid instance of ensemble acting, finely tuned and utterly at one with its material. Credit goes to all concerned, including director David Jones, who coached the fine performers and - as he acknowledged when I met him in New York shortly before the film's premiere - took care not to let Pinter's portentous reputation, and delicately balanced prose, dissuade him from bringing out the laughs of the play as often as possible. Distinguished producer

Among its other assets, ''Betrayal'' boasts one of the most distinguised producers in Hollywood history: Sam Spiegel, the nearly legendary showman whose career has ranged from ''The African Queen'' and ''On the Waterfront'' to ''Lawrence of Arabia'' and ''Bridge on the River Kwai.''

Spiegel visited here recently to launch his new picture, and I spoke with him at length in his posh hotel room - which he amiably apologized for, posh or not, as being the kind of ''sterile'' place he's as happy to leave as to arrive in. I began by asking how he got involved with a project as intimate, compared with many of his other pictures, as Pinter's three-character domestic drama.

Speaking in his elegant accent - echoing his Viennese youth and early work in Berlin during the 1930s - Spiegel replied that he has worked on a small canvas before, as in ''Suddenly Last Summer.'' He was drawn to ''Betrayal'' by his 20 -year friendship with Pinter, and by his feeling that the London and Broadway productions of the play could be improved upon.

''You need electrifying actors, and the casting was too flat in London,'' he says. As for the New York edition, ''The performers were American, and had more trouble being British than playing the parts!'' So he began discussing a movie version with Mike Nichols, who later dropped out and was replaced by debuting filmmaker David Jones.

Once the project was under way, Spiegel stayed on top of it, as is his custom. ''Harold and I spent months on the script, acquainting the director with every aspect of it,'' he recalls. ''And I was involved in the casting and all that.''

Then he stepped back a bit. ''Once a director starts shooting, I never look over his shoulder, because it could be intimidating,'' he explains. But he still watched the previous day's footage every morning, ''and if I felt anything needed retaking or changing, I met with the director right away. I also spent a great deal of time with the editing.''

Though the structure of ''Betrayal'' is unusual, Spiegel considers it essentially a realistic drama. ''There's a lot to identify with,'' he says. ''You could see it cynically, and say it's about the mortality of love. But really, it's saying that relationships aren't always on the same level. They can develop from one type of affection to another - including friendship, comradeship, liking instead of loving, and just enjoying each other.

''But when a relationship changes,'' he continues, ''it has to be done with honesty. If you betray that honesty, you ruin things. That's the morality tale of the film, in my eyes. It's moral because it warns that a relationship is perishable if faced with betrayal - people not being honest with themselves or with each other.''

Before embarking on ''Betrayal'' in 1980, when he and Pinter first discussed it, Spiegel had not produced any films in several years. Asked about his absence , he says it was voluntary. ''I haven't wanted to make a picture for some time, '' he explains, adding that he has been ''alienated by the type of movie in vogue now.''

Expanding on his feelings, Spiegel paints a sad but largely accurate portrait of the current movie scene. ''People have lost their ability to hear,'' he says. ''They don't listen to dialogue - they're benumbed by the sound of crashing cars and shooting guns. The lure of language, the beauty and nuance of language, has disappeared from movies.''

''So in the last few years I lost the joy of making movies, and the joy of seeing them,'' he continues, with obvious feeling. ''If I did go to a film, I'd be livid with rage on occasion - I couldn't sleep afterward, I was so disheartened. Just look at the kind of pictures that have won the Academy Award in the past 10 or 15 years. The first year I got really upset was when 'The French Connection' won. This mediocre picture was the best thing moviemakers could create in the Western world, Western culture, Western civilization? Just 25 years ago, Warner Bros. used to make six of these a month!''

Spiegel agrees, though, that moviegoers must share the guilt with moviemakers. ''It's a vicious circle,'' he opines. ''Everyone gets used to a certain style. For example, people have ceased reading and writing. They don't even write letters, because they prefer the telex and telephone. Who writes letters like, say, Noel Coward anymore - so numerous and well shaped, using the nuances of language? That's all gone. Even he would probably use the telex and telephone today!''

Much of the blame, in Spiegel's view, goes to ''the influence of television, '' which began ''this trend of lowering the appetite for quality.'' Motion pictures ''should have fought the style of television with a kind of quality television can't afford,'' he says. ''Then the movies would have survived much better. But instead, they followed the trend, and supplied even more violence than television could generate by itself.''

How did this unfortunate situation start? TV producers, in Spiegel's view, ''had to feed the monster of the tube 24 hours a day. And much of it had to be trash, because you can't make beautiful material in such quantities. So you constantly reduce the quality, and this is self-perpetuating. Then cinema is needed to replenish the monster with still more material. Audiences get used to a lower standard. And their children, instead of reading books, grow up reading trash on that screen.

''Also, the people who make pictures today are not literate enough. All kinds of agents have become moviemakers. But they're not really moviemakers. They're packagers.''

Hard words. Yet the act of producing ''Betrayal'' shows a basic optimism in Spiegel that refuses to die. He still feels there is a hungry audience out there , craving literate and intelligent entertainment. His wish to ''lure back'' that audience - and his desire to make a film he could be proud of, regardless of commercial success - were what spurred him toward his Pinter project.

Is he as pleased with ''Betrayal'' as he hoped to be? ''At the end,'' he says , ''you always find a little less on the screen than you dreamed of. Every picture would be infinitely better if you could entirely reshoot it after seeing it.''But that's obviously impossible. So if you come very close to what you imagined, you ought to be quite happy. And,'' he concludes, happily summing up his career, ''I've had the good fortune to come very close on quite a number of occasions. . . .'' The film set as reality

There's often a strange atmosphere at a ''location'' where a movie is being shot. You can feel the excitement and concentration of the filmmakers and performers. Yet there's so much waitingm all the time - for lights to be arranged , cameras to be moved, actors to be rehearsed. . . .

In his brilliant new film, The State of Things, director Wim Wenders carries this situation to extravagant heights, using it as a gloomy metaphor for the artistic process and perhaps the human condition itself.

The characters are a movie crew, on location at a desolate Portuguese hotel, shooting a science-fiction drama about survivors of a nuclear war. Things are fine until one gray day when they stumble against the ultimate cinematic embarrassment: running out of film. An emissary leaves for Hollywood to find out why money and supplies have mysteriously dried up. Meanwhile, everybody waits and waits and waits.

On paper, it sounds like a dreary dose of existential angst.m On the screen, it's far more. True, not much happens, and some of what does happen is trite - moping, some vulgar whining, a little forlorn sex. What takes over and makes the film soar is its exquisitely sustained mood, its relentless portrait of a supercharged tension between creation and ennui.

Its slow, steady rhythms are engulfing and irresistible; watching it is like hearing an adagio that refuses to end, somehow captivating the listener as surely in its second hour as in its first. When the picture finally does shift gears - with a burst of stunning, absurdist melodrama in the last half hour - it's both a relief and a letdown after that long, insinuating lead-up.

It's likely that ''The State of Things'' is a reflection of Wenders's own mood when it was made, during a hiatus when his long-awaited Hollywood production, ''Hammett,'' had apparently bogged down. But a strong share of credit must also go to his collaborators, including co-writer Robert Kramer and cinematographer Henri Alekan, whose somber black-and-white images are the film's most astonishing virtue. The cast includes a mixed bag of talents, from Allen Goorwitz and Viva to filmmakers-cum-actors Samuel Fuller and Roger Corman.

In all, a most unexpected enterprise, quite surpassing the somewhat similar film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder called ''Beware of a Holy Whore.'' Although its commercial prospects are dubious, it rousingly confirms the big-league status of Wenders, already one of West Germany's most promising contributions to world cinema.

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