True Confessions Review
It’s fair to say that back in 1981, True Confessions was eagerly awaited, teaming as it did Robert De Niro, in his first role after winning the Oscar for Raging Bull and Robert Duvall, on a career high following his extraordinary performances in Apocalypse Now and The Great Santini. The disappointment when the film emerged was palpable. People expected an explosive, monumental confrontation of acting talents and what they got was a poignant, slowly paced drama about the Church, corruption and family ties. In many ways, True Confessions is the failure it was condemned as in 1981, frequently trite and evasive, tantalising the viewer with dramatic possibilities that are simply thrown away. But it’s also an offbeat and compelling film which lodges itself at the back of your mind and won’t go away.
Ignoring the endpapers, set in the early 1960s and not really adding much to the film apart from a vague sense of sadness, the film is set in Los Angeles during the late 1940s and concerns an ambitious and ruthless Monsignor, Desmond Spellacy (De Niro) and his brother Tom, a homicide cop (Duvall). Des is slowly ascending the ladder within the Church, assiduously establishing mutually beneficial relationships with clergy and laity alike and, most importantly, making a good impression on the Cardinal (Cusack) who is particularly impressed with his ability to keep a black balance sheet. Recognising the hypocrisy of his position – preaching the purity of the eternal soul while helping people feather their mortal beds – he shrugs it off as essential if the Church is to ultimately help the people who most need it. Meanwhile, Tom – himself not untouched by corruption – is attempting to solve the murder of a young girl who has been cut in two and dumped in the Hollywood hills. He becomes convinced that the key to the killing lies with Jack Amsterdam (Durning), a wealthy businessman who has links to Des. But getting to Jack Amsterdam proves more difficult than expected, as the businessman has clothed his considerable iniquities in virtue through high profile work for the Church.
There is a lot of promising material here, notably the links between religion and business – explored in depth in the most interesting parts of Coppola’s Godfather Part 3 - and the ways in which absolution can be bought, directly or otherwise. The set-up of the mystery is also very promising with direct parallels to the famous Black Dahlia murder case which was memorably explored by James Ellroy, both in his book of the same name and his semi-autobiographical “My Dark Places”. Indeed, there are moments in the film when the director, Ulu Grosbard, and his writers John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion seem to be getting close to linking the murder with the general corruption of post-war LA and the specific corruption of the Church. The use of the killing of the girl – not exactly an innocent but possibly a sacrificial lamb – as a metaphor for the destruction of principle and honesty is hinted at so often that it’s almost painful to see how it never quite works. The problem lies in the evasion that is central to the problems of the film. Not only is a direct assault on Monsignor Desmond’s business practices avoided but the actual solution of the murder mystery is abstracted to the point where it’s entirely possible for you to miss the identity of the killer. The more Tom screams “I don’t care who murdered her” in pious outrage at the moral complacency of his brother, the more we realise that the director and writers don’t really care either. It’s clear that he’s desperate to topple Des from his position on the ladder towards the Papacy but exactly why he wants to is never made clear. It’s also clear that Tom is desperate to throw the book at the cancer-riddled, obscenely smug Jack Amsterdam but, again, it’s not made entirely clear what the businessman’s real involvement in the crime is or, more problematically, if he really does have an involvement in the first place.
Perhaps these narrative failures wouldn’t matter so much if we believed in the central relationship between the brothers. Unfortunately, we don’t. Tom and Des seem so radically different in temperament and character that it’s hard to believe they ever belonged to the same family and a late attempt to link them together – a scene where they visit their senile mother – doesn’t have any resonance. The writing is partly to blame here. Tom’s outbursts of anger don’t seem to come from anywhere inside him and his mood swings become so frequent that he seems more disturbed than anything else. Meanwhile, Des sits patiently, greeting every new plot point with serene wisdom, and seems to have to get other people to make his decisions for him. He’s obviously happy to be the right hand man of the Cardinal, doing the dirty work and blackening his hands for the greater good of the Church, but the drive and ambition which he so clearly possesses are absent from the character we see during the film. Duvall and De Niro are both excellent actors but they have essentially different acting styles. De Niro internalises everything and the more he gets inside the character, the more interesting he gets. When he’s got Jake La Motta or Travis Bickle to play, this works fine and he gives performances that rank among the best in film history. Duvall is at his best when playing the surface of the character, suggesting hidden depths without actually exploring them. When he played Tom Hagen in The Godfather and its sequel, his genius was in his physically hovering around the corners of the screen and being so still and calm that his body was almost screaming “Look how inert I am!”. His very best performances are as big, show-off characters who take over the films in which they appear, the finest example being Colonel Kilgore in Apocalypse Now who was so theatrical that he exulted in playing the hero in his own version of the war that was constantly playing in his head. Here, neither actor gets the opportunity to utilise their skills. De Niro tries to vanish into a character who doesn’t have any substance and ends up disappearing. Duvall, on the other hand, has to suggest inner rage that is neither rational nor apparently justified and he just ends up looking like a shouting bad actor. In their scenes together, they never suggest either a familial connection or the brotherly intimacy which might make the story make more sense.
Despite these basic failings that render True Confessions a dud as a thriller, there are things in the film which make it a lot more interesting than it has any right to be. The cinematography by Owen Roizman has some wonderfully atmospheric moments and conjures up a potent sense of post-war LA. Wisely avoiding a comparison with John A. Alonzo’s work on Chinatown, he avoids golden-brown nostalgia and goes instead for sunlit sleaze and grubbiness contrasting with the mahogany and panelling of the Church offices. Even more effective is the sad, gentle music score by the great Georges Delerue, which has a plangent tone of regret that the film aspires to but doesn’t quite achieve. Best of all though is Ulu Grosbard’s major achievement which is his ability to get memorable performances out of the supporting cast. He had shown this in his previous film, the excellent and undervalued Straight Time, and True Confessions demonstrates this talent at its best. There are lovely bits from Cyril Cusack, Burgess Meredith – as an honest and consequently dangerous priest – and Ed Flanders, playing the small role of Amsterdam’s attorney but doing it with unobtrusive skill. Charles Durning, one of the unsung heroes of American cinema in the past 30 years, is memorably dissolute as Amsterdam, his racking cough suggesting the real price he will pay for his venality, one that can’t be absolved by a priest or bought, like his meeting with the Pope. Stealing the film however is Kenneth McMillan, one of my very favourite actors. A familiar face in films, McMillan is wonderful at playing foul characters who you can’t quite bring yourself to hate. In this movie he’s Crotty, Tom’s partner, and a man who is so repulsive that he’s fascinating. Every time he appears, the film receives a charge of energy and when he vanishes, there’s a slump as you realise that you’re back to the Two Roberts. McMillan always seems to be on his toes, full of energy without being tiresome and he never slips out of character. If Ulu Grosbard did nothing else, and he doesn’t seem to have done a great deal, he deserves credit for guiding these performances.
Another MGM catalogue release, the Region 2 disc of True Confessions is adequate at best and sometimes not even that.
The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The transfer is non-anamorphic which is a pretty poor show on the part of MGM and suggests that they simply couldn’t be bothered. The picture quality isn’t too bad however. Colours are reasonably good and there is a pleasing level of detail. However, there is a considerable problem with compression artifacts throughout the film and some of the exterior scenes look rather grainy.
The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono and is acceptable without being impressive. Some of the dialogue is difficult to hear and only the delicate music score comes across strongly.
The only extra is the original theatrical trailer which is ludicrously solemn and demonstrates how self-importantly the film was presented upon release.
True Confessions is a fascinating failure of a film which contains enough good to make it worth seeing. The supporting performances alone make it a good deal more impressive than it might otherwise have been. The disc has been thrown together without any care and is only worth considering if you’re particularly keen to own the film.