True Confessions, with a screenplay by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, is a movie with a split personality. Half of it is a skewering look at pride and ambition in the Catholic Church, where the desire to build orphanages and schools is too easily transformed into rubbing shoulders with the powerful and the sleazy, where a young monsignor is the smooth arm of the cardinal, extracting money from the rich, making sure high awards go to those who contribute and who is accustomed to his usual lunch of a rob roy with a twist and a large shrimp cocktail at exclusive restaurants. The other half is the story of a gruesome murder of a young woman whose torso, cut into two pieces, is found in a Los Angeles field. This part also is the story of the detective who investigates the crime and the tawdry world of prostitution and bribes he operates in. Any chance that the monsignor and the detective are brothers? Any chance that we're supposed to draw parallels between the two worlds the brothers operate in?
Robert De Niro plays Monsignor Des Spellacy. He's helped transform the Los Angeles archdiocese under the knowing eye of Cardinal Danahan. He raises vast amounts of money on the golf courses and he's not above manipulating a church raffle. One of the men he deals with is the wealthy, aggressive Jack Amsterdam (Charles Durning), a heavy contributor and a man eager for lucrative building contracts and high Catholic awards.
Robert Duvall plays L. A. Homicide detective Tom Spellacy, long estranged from his brother. Tom is a cop who started out as a bagman for pimps, changed his ways, but isn't above ignoring small payoffs. He has an intense dislike for both Amsterdam and what he believes is the hypocrisy of the Church.
The movie takes us to the tawdriest parts of 1948 Los Angeles, where there's usually no percentage in finding the killers of prostitutes.
"You know who we're going to pick up on this one?" says Frank Crotty to Tom, his partner. "Panty sniffers, weenie flashers, guys who beat their hog on the number two bus, guys who fall in love with their shoes. Know how we're going to break this case? A couple of years from now, we'll pick up someone running a red light. I killed the girl, he'll say. What girl, we'll say. The girl with the rose tattoo, he'll say. What girl was that, we'll say. This is a 9-to-5 stiff, Tom. No overtime." That all changes when Tom gets Jack Amsterdam in his sights.
We also learn the other side of that coin. When the Cardinal says he's nominating Des for appointment as an auxiliary bishop, he tells Des, "If you're lucky you'll find an ambitious young monsignor to do your dirty work for you." That's immediately after the Cardinal instructed Des to remove a fine old priest from a parish because the man had complained too often that the Church wasn't compassionate enough.
The two themes come together, but only barely. The murder mystery, which to me gives the movie its juice, just slowly peters out in a conclusion where the murderer seems to be an afterthought and a few newspaper headlines seem sufficient for retribution and redemption.
Although for me the movie is something of a disappointment, it's a fascinating one. True Confessions has a great look about it. The movie captures that same golden ambiance of Los Angeles corruption that Chinatown did. We move from pornographic studios in abandoned warehouses to elegant archdiocese offices, from ritzy restaurants to cathouses. Charles Durning as Amsterdam, Kenneth McMillan as Frank Crotty, Burgess Meredith as Father Fargo, Cyril Cusack as the Cardinal are each superb in their roles. Most of all, the dynamic between De Niro and Duvall is fascinating. In the face of Duvall's utter believability as Tom Spellacy, De Niro was smart enough to underplay. They give the movie far more energy than do the messages Didion and Dunne serve up.
If Didion and Dunne had simply concentrated on the murder and let the messages indirectly seep into our heads, I think they would have had a stunning film. But make no mistake, True Confessions with all its faults is still a lot of fun...but you'll need to be fond of stylish, grubby murder, post WWII Los Angeles and have a high tolerance for meaningful messages.