Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Ulu Grosbard's True Confessions is the best movie to date about the "Black Dahlia" killing, even though the horrible 1947 murder is used only as a backdrop for a story about two brothers, one a homicide detective and the other a high-ranking Catholic politico in the Los Angeles diocese. It's a profound tale of corruption and atonement, and a major acting workout for two of 1981's hottest stars, Robert DeNiro and Robert Duvall. If you like L.A. Confidential, Chinatown and other period pictures about life in the big city, and can take the film's slower than normal pace, True Confessions will be a highly rewarding show.
Detective Sergeant Tom Spellacy (Robert Duvall) refuses to take bribes, even though his partner Frank Crotty (Kenneth McMillan) still acts as 'bagman' in the Chinese neighborhood. Together they investigate the 'virgin tramp' murder of Lois Fazenda, whose body is found bisected and bloodless in a vacant lot. Tom has only a tentative relationship with his brother Desmond (Robert DeNiro), a Monsignor slated to move up when Cardinal Danaher (Cyril Cusack) steps down. Tom and Frank cover up for the church when a priest dies in a brothel run by Brenda Samuels (Rose Gregorio), but Tom cannot stomach Desmond's business dealings with Jack Amsterdam (Charles Durning), a developer making millions from church projects. Tom knows that Jack was once a pimp who ran Brenda's business and still uses hoodlum tactics; until Tom went straight, he was Jack's bagman. Desmond is certain that he can do what needs to be done to keep Jack from harming the diocese, even though he can't even prevent his beloved mentor Monsignor Seamus Fargo (Burgess Meredith) from being put out to pasture. The status quo is maintained -- until Tom finds a link between Lois Fazenda, Jack Amsterdam and other high-ranking laymen with close contacts to Desmond.
John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion's True Confessions script updates the 30s notion of brothers who grow up on both sides of the law, as with James Cagney and Pat O. Brien in Warners' Angels with Dirty Faces. The Catholic Church surely welcomed that old movie's fairy-tale take on the priesthood, but I doubt they'd feel flattered by this image of a diocese run by power brokers unwisely allied with mobsters. Then again, because today's particular church scandals have no part in the story, perhaps they'd not mind at all.
True Confessions is actually a story of moral redemption. 'Good' brother Desmond is a pillar of the community. Brother Thomas was once a corrupt cop and now has nothing to do with bribes and payoffs, even though it means he can't afford a car in good working order. Tom is profane, cynical and outwardly cruel in his associations, especially with Brenda Samuels, a tired madame who craves his help and understanding: they were once lovers. The cops share blasé, morbid shop-talk and sick jokes over Lois Fazenda's body, left cut in two in a weed field. Tom even throws a hurtful remark at a nun ("May all your sons be Jesuits") for no good reason at all.
The irony is that Tom is the brother who has remained true to his principles, and his choice is more than simply compensating for the sins of his youth. The specter of Chinatown is here as well -- past failures that eat the soul. Desmond's true situation takes longer to unfold. He wants his brother to talk politely and humor their senile mother (Jeanette Nolan), even though she persists in tagging Tom as a bad boy. Desmond's basically the Church contact with the outside world when it comes to construction and development. He admits that his calling is more organizational than faith-oriented: if the church is going "to save souls it needs places to do it in." Unfortunately, Desmond has involved the church with a bunch of glad-handing heavy donors. When the transparently corrupt Jack Amsterdam isn't crowding Desmond for a positive answer to his latest scheme, business agent Dan T. Campion (Ed Flanders) is smoothing things over. Desmond has risked his future to save a few dollars and exert his personal influence: if Jack and his cohorts run afoul with the law, the diocese will be tainted.
Tom knows that Amsterdam suppresses his competition with criminal methods, and is happy when a break in the Lois Fazenda case connects Jack with the actual killer. Unfortunately, the trail of scandal reaches right into the chancery: Lois met Jack and his cronies after she hitched a ride from Del Mar with Desmond and Campion. The pragmatic Cardinal has already cashiered good old Monsignor Fargo for merely disagreeing with Desmond's sharp business dealings. If tom breaks the scandal, Desmond could go from Cardinal shoo-in to persona non grata in a heartbeat.
The dark center of True Confessions occurs when Tom comes upon the location where Lois was actually killed. Without dialogue, we follow Tom step by step through the ghastly remains. The sequence has an eerily religious tone. Less powerful but still meaningful is the scene where the murdered girl's parents identify her body, a sort of replay from The Naked City done L.A. style (and revisited again in L.A. Confidential). After mourning her baby, the mother eventually levels her eyes at Duvall and says, "Catch the son of a bitch."
Director Ulu Grosbard (The Subject Was Roses, Straight Time) has mounted a superb film for period atmosphere, an L.A. where the sun is always out and everybody with shined shoes has some kind of racket going. The story of the real Black Dahlia killing went in an entirely different direction, but Lois Fazenda's characterization as a nervy good-time girl is still accurate. If anything, the film's picture of L.A. law in the late 1940s isn't dark enough: in the best account I have read, the LAPD maintained a special detail of cops to look out for the mob's interests, and keep the vice money flowing.
Robert DeNiro and Robert Duvall are riveting separately and even more impressive together. They share a powerful confession scene that suddenly illuminates Tom's feelings of shame. The script is all the more intelligent for not letting characters 'explain' themselves; we have to watch and see. Charles Durning, Kenneth McMillan and Ed Flanders are all good, and Rose Gregorio as the complex Brenda Samuels exceptionally so. She's a prime example of a character that has only a handful of scenes, yet lingers in the memory. Around the periphery we can spot Dan Hedaya ("It's the work of a werewolf!"), James Hong, Jorge Cervera Jr. and Paul Valentine of Out of the Past, made 34 years earlier. It's a shame that the film wasn't promoted more forcefully when new.
MGM's DVD of True Confessions is a fine-looking enhanced transfer of a show that's lived mostly on cable TV screenings with compromised framing. Owen Roizman's color cinematography is beautiful, showing off cleverly filmed scenes at Union Station, Olvera Street, with an estate in Sierra Madre standing in for the chancery building. The release has no extras, despite the fact that most of the principals are alive and would probably be eager to talk about it. The big studios would generate more interest in their excellent, lesser known library titles if they just pretended they gave a damn about them once in a while. However, new MGM distributor Fox has made sure their logo is firmly in place.
Otherwise, the presentation is beautiful. A flat transfer is included as well, so I'll remember to be grateful that we've been given a widescreen version.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
True Confessions rates:
Sound:: Excellent Stereo English, mono English, French, Spanish
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 14, 2007
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson