The 1981 film True Confessions tells many different stories.
It’s a story about Los Angeles. It’s not necessarily a story about Los Angeles as it exists. Instead, it’s a story about Los Angeles as we always imagine it. It’s the late 40s and, having vanquished the Nazis in Europe, men are returning to California and looking for a new life. Meanwhile, aspiring starlets from across the country flood into Hollywood, looking for stardom. It’s a city where glitz and ruin exist right next to each other. It’s the mean streets that were made famous by Raymond Chandler and, decades later, James Ellroy.
It’s a murder mystery, one that is based on one of the most notorious unsolved homicides of all time. The bisected body of woman named Lois Fazenda has been found in a vacant lot. When the newspapers discover that Lois was both a prostitute and a Catholic, she becomes known as “the Virgin Tramp.” One need not have an encyclopedic knowledge of unsolved crimes to recognize that Lois Fazneda is meant to be a stand-in for Elizabeth Short, the tragic and infamous Black Dahlia.
It’s a story about corruption. Crooked cops. Rich perverts. Greedy politicians. Sinful clergy. They’re all present and accounted for in True Confessions. As quickly becomes apparent, Los Angeles is a city where you can do anything as long as you have the money to pay the right people off.
And finally, it’s a film about two brothers. Tom and Des Spellacy grew up in a strong Irish Catholic family but, as they got older, their lives went in different directions. Tom (Robert Duvall) became a detective, the type who is willing to cut corners but who, in the end, takes his job seriously. Des (Robert De Niro) entered the priesthood and is now a monsignor in the Los Angeles diocese. Des is ambitious and he has a powerful mentor, Cardinal Danaher (Cyril Cusack).
Though Tom and Des have gone their separate ways, they are still linked by Jack Amsterdam (Charles During). To the public, Jack is a wealthy and respected businessman. However, Tom and Des both know the truth. When Tom first joined the department, he worked as a bagman for Jack and he knows that Jack made most of his money through a prostitution ring. Des know that Jack donates to the Church as way to cover up his own corruption but Des looks the other way. The Cardinal, after all, wants Jack’s money.
When Tom starts to investigate Lois’s death, it doesn’t take him long to figure out that Jack is probably the one responsible. Meanwhile, Jack and his lawyer (Ed Flanders) start to pressure Des to convince his brother to let the case go. Finding justice for Lois Fazneda could mean the end of both Tom and Des’s career.
Based on a novel by John Gregory Dunne, which was adapted into a screenplay by Dunne and Joan Didion, True Confessions is an imperfect but intriguing film. This is one of Robert Duvall’s best performances and he brings a manic edge to the role that keeps the audience off-balance. In the role of Jack Amsterdam, Charles Durning is the epitome of casual corruption and Burgess Meredith does a good job as an aging priest. On the other hand, Robert De Niro seems strangely uncomfortable in the role of Des and you never quite believe that he and Duvall are actually brothers. Director Ulu Grosbard does a good job of creating a proper noir atmosphere but, at the same time, he denies the audience the dramatic climax to which the film appears to be building up to.
That said, for whatever flaws True Confessions may have, it’s an always watchable and thought-provoking film.