By Linc Leifeste | October 13, 2014
Director: Ulu Grosbard
Writers: John Gregory Dunne, Joan Didion, Gary S. Hall (uncredited)
Starring: Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, Charles Durning, Kenneth McMillan, Ed Flanders, Cyril Cusack, Burgess Meredith, Rose Gregorio
Thanks to Kino Lorber Studio Classics’ ongoing series of Blu-ray releases of classic films, I was finally able to right a great wrong in my cinematic life by watching Ulu Grosbard’s riveting 1981 film, True Confessions. Not only is this an expertly-crafted period piece set in 1940’s Los Angeles, it’s a film that stars both Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall, which alone should make it a must-see. But more than that, it captures these two actors in their primes. This is Duvall from between The Great Santini and Tender Mercies and De Niro right after Raging Bull and just before The King of Comedy. That means we’re talking about two of this nation’s very finest actors in 1981 (the two had been rivals for the Best Actor Oscar at the 1981 Academy Awards six months before the film’s release), and despite the lukewarm response the film seems to have received after its release, they’re plying their trade in service of a very well-crafted film.
Inspired loosely by the famous unsolved Black Dahlia murder that took place in Los Angeles in January, 1947, the film focuses on the Spellacy brothers, Catholic priest Father Des Spellacy (Robert De Niro) and L.A. Police detective Tom Spellacy (Robert Duvall). Despite the seeming distance between their chosen vocations, the two operate in remarkably similar environments of greed, corruption, cynicism and power-hungry maneuvering. And despite the notion of L.A. as a metropolitan city, L.A. circa 1947 as represented in the film, has the feel of a big small town, where, at least in the right circles, everyone knows everyone.
Duvall plays Tom pitch perfectly, a tough, cynical cop whose motivations are often hard to read, who despite having once been a corrupt young member of the vice squad, has now cleaned up his act. Likewise, De Niro is spot on as the crafty upwardly mobile monsignor, a man of God who’s remarkably adept at navigating the powerful politics of men, in the process transforming his diocese from cash-strapped to financially fruitful. He’s the kind of priest who might rig a church raffle so that an important donor’s daughter wins a car, knowing that the right palms need to be greased in order for the funds to flow that allow the Church to do the work of God.
The two men operate for the most part in separate circles until the discovery of the body of a brutally murdered young woman in an empty lot sets events in motion that bring the two brothers’ worlds colliding together. Tom, unlike his corrupt partner Frank (Kenneth McMillan), is intent on solving the murder and while digging around finds connections between the victim and his former mistress Brenda (Rose Gregorio), who runs a brothel frequented by cops, priests and many of the movers and shakers in L.A. Among her clients is Jack Amsterdam (Charles Durning), who has himself gone from being a pimp to a construction mogul and a major contributor to the Church. There’s nothing saintly about the man but he and the Church have a mutually beneficial relationship, which leads to his gaining an audience with the Pope and being honored as the “Catholic Layman of the Year.”
Father Spellacy has perfected the art of looking the other way as he shakes hands with the devil, seeing no evil as he willingly plays the games necessary of those who wish to climb any ladder of height, be they secular or divine. In the process, he finds himself in the position of putting to pasture elderly Monsignor Seamus Fargo (Burgess Meredith), the straight-shooting priest who initially inspired him to devote his life to the service of God. It’s not until Tom’s investigation puts Amsterdam squarely in his sights that his brother is forced to evaluate the course of his life, when it becomes clear that Tom is intent on tying Amsterdam to the unsolved murder, guilty or not, completely indifferent to any potential collateral damage to his own career or that of his brother.
A subtle, powerful character study, True Confessions is a brilliantly understated meditation on the nature of power, corruption and brotherly love. Duvall and De Niro are equally brilliant in their lived-in portrayal of two brothers trying to navigate through what is ultimately the same system from two different angles. And the performances from supporting greats Durning, McMillan, Flanders, Meredith and Gregorio are all just as equally authentic. A slow burn from start to finish, the film is tough and lean with no fat to burn. There are no false starts, no wasted lines, no cheap tricks. This is not, in the end, simply entertainment, but instead masterful storytelling of a kind that requires something from the audience in the way of concentration and thought. Sadly, this type of filmmaking now seems more distant than even the long gone L.A. the film portrays.