True Confessions


1h 48m 1981
True Confessions

Brief Synopsis

A police detective clashes with his brother, a monsignor, during a murder investigation.

Film Details

Also Known As
Avslöjandet
MPAA Rating
R
Genre
Drama
Action
Crime
Release Date
1981

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 48m

Synopsis

It's 1948, and Tom Spellacy is a formerly corrupt Los Angeles police detective who is investigating two murders: One of a priest who died in a house of prostitution, and the other of a woman found dead in a park. During his investigation, Tom discovers a web of corruption that involves prostitution, pornography, the police department, and the local Catholic Church. Tom's brother Monsignor Des Spellacy has been dealing with a dishonest contractor who he hopes will help finance the expansion of his church. Tom has to deal with his brother's questionable ethical decisions while trying to solve the two murders.

Film Details

Also Known As
Avslöjandet
MPAA Rating
R
Genre
Drama
Action
Crime
Release Date
1981

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 48m

Articles

True Confessions (1981) -


Two acting giants - Robert Duvall and Robert De Niro -- shared the screen for the first time in this moody thriller. Although they had both starred in The Godfather: Part II (1974), they had not appeared on screen together, with De Niro playing the young Vito Corleone in flashbacks set long before the don adopted Duvall's character. When True Confessions (1981) came out, the two had just been up against each other for the Best Actor Oscar®, with De Niro's performance in Raging Bull beating Duvall's in The Great Santini (both 1980). In their new film, however, Duvall clearly had the showier role.

True Confessions is set in the late 1940s in the Los Angeles of film noir, particularly revisionist film noirs like Chinatown (1974) and Farewell, My Lovely (1975). The stars play brothers, with police detective Duvall investigating a sensationalized murder case whose victim, a prostitute nicknamed "The Virgin Tramp," has ties to the upper echelons of the Los Angeles business world and his own brother (De Niro), now a monsignor. Also linking the brothers is a corrupt businessman (Charles Durning) who once gave Duvall payoffs to protect his prostitution business and now is trying to buy salvation with a series of building projects for the church under De Niro's supervision. As Duvall's dogged investigation uncovers links between the victim and Durning, the detective has to grapple with guilt over his corrupt past.

Both John Gregory Dunne's acclaimed novel and the film, which he co-wrote with wife Joan Didion, were inspired by the Black Dahlia case, one of the oldest unsolved murders in U.S. history. As in the murder of Elizabeth Short, the victim in this film, Lois Fazenda, was cut in two by her killer. Unlike Short, however, the victim in True Confessions is clearly a prostitute (there were only rumors suggesting Short was a call girl, and those were discounted by the grand jury). As an aspiring actress with a taste for partying, Short rarely crossed paths with the leaders of Los Angeles society, as Fazenda had before her murder. Further, True Confessions suggests a strong possible solution for the case, something that never emerged in the murder of the Black Dahlia.

Both actors went through rigorous preparations for their roles. Duvall accompanied Los Angeles homicide detectives during several night shifts, sat on stakeout with them, witnessed a lie-detector test and even visited a real murder scene. De Niro had just put on 60 pounds for the final scenes in Raging Bull. He delayed taking all of it off because he felt carrying a few extra pounds fit the Monsignor's character. He also underwent four hours a day in the make-up chair in preparation for his scenes as the dying Monsignor Spellacy in the film's prologue and epilogue.

To direct the film, producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler, who had also produced Raging Bull, tapped Ulu Grosbard, a stage veteran with a reputation for guiding his actors to powerful performance. He had made his film debut with the adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Subject Was Roses (1968), which brought Jack Albertson the Oscar® for Best Supporting Actor and won leading lady Patricia Neal a nomination as well. Although his film credits were only sporadic, he had built a strong working relationship with Dustin Hoffman, whom he directed in Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? (1971) and Straight Time (1978). The former featured Grosbard's wife, Rose Gregorio, in a supporting role. She would also have a meaty role as a madam and former associate of Duvall's in True Confessions and reteam with her husband for his final film, The Deep End of the Ocean (1999). De Niro and Grosbard would work together again on the romantic drama Falling in Love (1984), co-starring Meryl Streep.

Shooting on True Confessions was a slow, painstaking process that ran over schedule. Bill Conti was originally signed to score the film but had to drop out when the lengthy shoot pushed back postproduction so much it conflicted with an earlier commitment to work on For Your Eyes Only (1981). Instead, French composer Georges Delerue scored True Confessions, which was his first film made in the U.S., where he had relocated from his home in France. His background score includes period classics like "Memories of You," "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You" and "I'm in the Mood for Love." Among the historical Los Angeles locations redressed to re-capture the late 1940s were Echo Park, Union Station and Alverno High School. Yet for all the period research that went into the film, there's one on-screen anachronism; the crime scene photographer uses a camera model not produced until the 1950s.

True Confessions originally was scheduled for a 1980 release but United Artists pushed it back so the film would not blunt Raging Bull's impact. The studio then delayed it further, moving it from February to September in anticipation of a strong showing in the year-end awards competitions. The delay didn't help. The film fared poorly at the box office and scored only mixed reviews. While praising individual scenes, Roger Ebert's Chicago Sun-Times critique captured the film's biggest problem with critics and audiences: "It's frustrating to sit though a movie filled with clues and leads and motivations, only to discover at the end that the filmmakers can't be bothered with finishing the story." With strong performances and powerful individual scenes, however, the film definitely had its supporters. Duvall came in third in the annual New York Film Critics Awards for Best Actor, and he and De Niro shared the Golden Phoenix for Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival.

By Frank Miller

Producer: Robert Chartoff, Irwin Winkler
Director: Ulu Grosbard
Screenplay: John Gregory Dunne, Joan Didion
Based on the novel by Dunne
Cinematography: Owen Roizman
Score: Georges Delerue
Cast: Robert De Niro (Father Des Spellacy), Robert Duvall (Det. Tom Spellacy), Charles Durning (Jack Amsterdam), Kenneth McMillan (Frank Crotty), Ed Flanders (Dan T. Campion), Cyril Cusack (Cardinal Danaher), Burgess Meredith (Msgr. Seamus Fargo), Rose Gregorio (Brenda Samuels), Dan Hedaya (Howard Terkel), Jeanette Nolan (Mrs. Spellacy)
True Confessions (1981) -

True Confessions (1981) -

Two acting giants - Robert Duvall and Robert De Niro -- shared the screen for the first time in this moody thriller. Although they had both starred in The Godfather: Part II (1974), they had not appeared on screen together, with De Niro playing the young Vito Corleone in flashbacks set long before the don adopted Duvall's character. When True Confessions (1981) came out, the two had just been up against each other for the Best Actor Oscar®, with De Niro's performance in Raging Bull beating Duvall's in The Great Santini (both 1980). In their new film, however, Duvall clearly had the showier role. True Confessions is set in the late 1940s in the Los Angeles of film noir, particularly revisionist film noirs like Chinatown (1974) and Farewell, My Lovely (1975). The stars play brothers, with police detective Duvall investigating a sensationalized murder case whose victim, a prostitute nicknamed "The Virgin Tramp," has ties to the upper echelons of the Los Angeles business world and his own brother (De Niro), now a monsignor. Also linking the brothers is a corrupt businessman (Charles Durning) who once gave Duvall payoffs to protect his prostitution business and now is trying to buy salvation with a series of building projects for the church under De Niro's supervision. As Duvall's dogged investigation uncovers links between the victim and Durning, the detective has to grapple with guilt over his corrupt past. Both John Gregory Dunne's acclaimed novel and the film, which he co-wrote with wife Joan Didion, were inspired by the Black Dahlia case, one of the oldest unsolved murders in U.S. history. As in the murder of Elizabeth Short, the victim in this film, Lois Fazenda, was cut in two by her killer. Unlike Short, however, the victim in True Confessions is clearly a prostitute (there were only rumors suggesting Short was a call girl, and those were discounted by the grand jury). As an aspiring actress with a taste for partying, Short rarely crossed paths with the leaders of Los Angeles society, as Fazenda had before her murder. Further, True Confessions suggests a strong possible solution for the case, something that never emerged in the murder of the Black Dahlia. Both actors went through rigorous preparations for their roles. Duvall accompanied Los Angeles homicide detectives during several night shifts, sat on stakeout with them, witnessed a lie-detector test and even visited a real murder scene. De Niro had just put on 60 pounds for the final scenes in Raging Bull. He delayed taking all of it off because he felt carrying a few extra pounds fit the Monsignor's character. He also underwent four hours a day in the make-up chair in preparation for his scenes as the dying Monsignor Spellacy in the film's prologue and epilogue. To direct the film, producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler, who had also produced Raging Bull, tapped Ulu Grosbard, a stage veteran with a reputation for guiding his actors to powerful performance. He had made his film debut with the adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Subject Was Roses (1968), which brought Jack Albertson the Oscar® for Best Supporting Actor and won leading lady Patricia Neal a nomination as well. Although his film credits were only sporadic, he had built a strong working relationship with Dustin Hoffman, whom he directed in Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? (1971) and Straight Time (1978). The former featured Grosbard's wife, Rose Gregorio, in a supporting role. She would also have a meaty role as a madam and former associate of Duvall's in True Confessions and reteam with her husband for his final film, The Deep End of the Ocean (1999). De Niro and Grosbard would work together again on the romantic drama Falling in Love (1984), co-starring Meryl Streep. Shooting on True Confessions was a slow, painstaking process that ran over schedule. Bill Conti was originally signed to score the film but had to drop out when the lengthy shoot pushed back postproduction so much it conflicted with an earlier commitment to work on For Your Eyes Only (1981). Instead, French composer Georges Delerue scored True Confessions, which was his first film made in the U.S., where he had relocated from his home in France. His background score includes period classics like "Memories of You," "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You" and "I'm in the Mood for Love." Among the historical Los Angeles locations redressed to re-capture the late 1940s were Echo Park, Union Station and Alverno High School. Yet for all the period research that went into the film, there's one on-screen anachronism; the crime scene photographer uses a camera model not produced until the 1950s. True Confessions originally was scheduled for a 1980 release but United Artists pushed it back so the film would not blunt Raging Bull's impact. The studio then delayed it further, moving it from February to September in anticipation of a strong showing in the year-end awards competitions. The delay didn't help. The film fared poorly at the box office and scored only mixed reviews. While praising individual scenes, Roger Ebert's Chicago Sun-Times critique captured the film's biggest problem with critics and audiences: "It's frustrating to sit though a movie filled with clues and leads and motivations, only to discover at the end that the filmmakers can't be bothered with finishing the story." With strong performances and powerful individual scenes, however, the film definitely had its supporters. Duvall came in third in the annual New York Film Critics Awards for Best Actor, and he and De Niro shared the Golden Phoenix for Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival. By Frank Miller Producer: Robert Chartoff, Irwin Winkler Director: Ulu Grosbard Screenplay: John Gregory Dunne, Joan Didion Based on the novel by Dunne Cinematography: Owen Roizman Score: Georges Delerue Cast: Robert De Niro (Father Des Spellacy), Robert Duvall (Det. Tom Spellacy), Charles Durning (Jack Amsterdam), Kenneth McMillan (Frank Crotty), Ed Flanders (Dan T. Campion), Cyril Cusack (Cardinal Danaher), Burgess Meredith (Msgr. Seamus Fargo), Rose Gregorio (Brenda Samuels), Dan Hedaya (Howard Terkel), Jeanette Nolan (Mrs. Spellacy)

True Confessions - Robert De Niro & Robert Duvall in TRUE CONFESSIONS on DVD


True Confessions, the 1981 crime drama directed by Ulu Grosbard, is a movie that had to happen. It's based on John Gregory Dunne's bestselling 1977 novel, one of the rare modern mysteries to deserve real literary respect. The story was inspired by the notorious Black Dahlia murder that made tabloid headlines in 1947 and still remains unsolved. And it has a pair of fascinating main characters: two brothers whose professions, policeman and priest, reflect different but complementary attitudes toward evil, transgression, and sin.

The brothers are Tom Spellacy, a Los Angeles cop, and Des Spellacy, a Roman Catholic priest. Their relationship is cordial but cool-each is surprised at how the other turned out and skeptical of how the other deals with the cold, hard facts of contemporary urban life. Along with family ties, they're linked by connections to Jack Amsterdam, once a sleazy hoodlum and now a business tycoon who's despised by Tom because of his hypocrisy but treated well by Des since he helps Catholic community projects in the area. Further complications arise as Tom investigates the horrific murder of a young woman named Lois Fazenda, who-like the victim of the actual Black Dahlia case-is found in a gruesomely mutilated condition, her corpse cut in half at the waist. Also like the real Black Dahlia victim, she becomes famous in the newspapers under a posthumous nickname: the Virgin Tramp.

As he probes more deeply into the case, Tom finds that Lois was acquainted with his own girlfriend, the proprietor of a cheap brothel where, it so happens, an errant priest recently died. She also had links to Amsterdam, whose slimy tentacles reach almost everywhere. Other players in the story include an aging monsignor on his way to forced retirement in the middle of nowhere; a savvy old cardinal who places high value (perhaps too high) on Des's skills as a wheeler-dealer; and Tom's partner Frank Crotty, a hardened detective whose petty corruption doesn't cancel his determination to make bad guys pay dearly for their wickedness.

Grosbard, a successful stage director, has helmed only seven films during his forty-year screen career. But at his best, he shows an unsurpassed flair for eliciting superb performances from his actors. (See the 1978 crime picture Straight Time and the 1995 music drama Georgia for excellent examples.) So it's no surprise that True Confessions draws much of its dramatic power from its extraordinary cast.

What is surprising is that Robert De Niro, arguably the most gifted movie actor of his generation, gives one of his rare below-par performances under Grosbard's guidance; he captures Des's solidity and steadfastness but has less success with the inner contradictions that ultimately endanger Des's cherished career. This said, De Niro remains captivating to watch even in his most understated mode; and at a few privileged moments he comes close to unveiling the profound ambivalence that roils Des's conflicted soul.

The great Robert Duvall is at his greatest playing Des's big brother Tom, whose hard-working habits mask an unsavory past as a bagman for Amsterdam's illegal payoffs. Although he knows how the law is supposed to work, he's more committed to his idea of how it ought to work. Increasingly disgusted by Amsterdam's arrogance, he embarrasses Des with public outbursts of rage and hate against the crooked boss. At the same time he pursues the Virgin Tramp case wherever it may lead, which turns out to be closer and closer to home.

Another high-caliber performance comes from Kenneth McMillan as Tom's partner Crotty, whose blend of morbid humor and crusty cynicism plays beautifully off Tom's versions of the same qualities. Applause also goes to Cyril Cusack as the cardinal; Burgess Meredith as the old monsignor; Rose Gregorio as Tom's mistress; and especially Charles Durning, who manages to humanize Amsterdam without making him anything other than the nasty, hypocritical felon he is. In the technical area, top honors go to cinematographer Owen Roizman for vividly conveying both the splendor of Catholic ritual and the grittiness of LA's underworld.

The screenplay, by novelist Dunne and his wife Joan Didion, preserves the overall structure of Dunne's book, beginning and ending with a reunion of Tom and Des years after the Virgin Tramp case. Key lines of dialogue are also retained, although they're sometimes moved around a bit. The picture has occasional slack moments, but on the whole Grosbard and company keep its dramatic momentum pumping along.

Reviews of True Confessions have been all over the map. Vincent Canby of the New York Times called it "one of the most entertaining, most intelligent and most thoroughly satisfying commercial American films in a very long time," establishing Grosbard as "a major American film maker." By contrast, Roger Ebert wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times that although it "contains scenes that are just about as good as scenes can be," the movie as a whole left him "disoriented and disappointed." I similarly deemed it "a disappointing stab at...truly adult cinema" in my Christian Science Monitor review, chiding it for "too little energy and too much sensationalism around the edges." I hereby change my tune, though. The movie is more powerful today than when it was new, including De Niro's acting, which now strikes me as less dully monotonous than boldly minimalist.

Given the major talents who contributed to True Confessions, it's a shame that MGM doesn't provide so much as a theatrical trailer to enhance the DVD edition. The film itself looks fine, though, and the mostly superlative acting comes across with undiminished oomph. Like the novel it's based on, Grosbard's film is an admirable success, if not quite a total one.

For more information about True Confessions, visit MGM. To order True Confessions, go to TCM Shopping.

by David Sterritt

True Confessions - Robert De Niro & Robert Duvall in TRUE CONFESSIONS on DVD

True Confessions, the 1981 crime drama directed by Ulu Grosbard, is a movie that had to happen. It's based on John Gregory Dunne's bestselling 1977 novel, one of the rare modern mysteries to deserve real literary respect. The story was inspired by the notorious Black Dahlia murder that made tabloid headlines in 1947 and still remains unsolved. And it has a pair of fascinating main characters: two brothers whose professions, policeman and priest, reflect different but complementary attitudes toward evil, transgression, and sin. The brothers are Tom Spellacy, a Los Angeles cop, and Des Spellacy, a Roman Catholic priest. Their relationship is cordial but cool-each is surprised at how the other turned out and skeptical of how the other deals with the cold, hard facts of contemporary urban life. Along with family ties, they're linked by connections to Jack Amsterdam, once a sleazy hoodlum and now a business tycoon who's despised by Tom because of his hypocrisy but treated well by Des since he helps Catholic community projects in the area. Further complications arise as Tom investigates the horrific murder of a young woman named Lois Fazenda, who-like the victim of the actual Black Dahlia case-is found in a gruesomely mutilated condition, her corpse cut in half at the waist. Also like the real Black Dahlia victim, she becomes famous in the newspapers under a posthumous nickname: the Virgin Tramp. As he probes more deeply into the case, Tom finds that Lois was acquainted with his own girlfriend, the proprietor of a cheap brothel where, it so happens, an errant priest recently died. She also had links to Amsterdam, whose slimy tentacles reach almost everywhere. Other players in the story include an aging monsignor on his way to forced retirement in the middle of nowhere; a savvy old cardinal who places high value (perhaps too high) on Des's skills as a wheeler-dealer; and Tom's partner Frank Crotty, a hardened detective whose petty corruption doesn't cancel his determination to make bad guys pay dearly for their wickedness. Grosbard, a successful stage director, has helmed only seven films during his forty-year screen career. But at his best, he shows an unsurpassed flair for eliciting superb performances from his actors. (See the 1978 crime picture Straight Time and the 1995 music drama Georgia for excellent examples.) So it's no surprise that True Confessions draws much of its dramatic power from its extraordinary cast. What is surprising is that Robert De Niro, arguably the most gifted movie actor of his generation, gives one of his rare below-par performances under Grosbard's guidance; he captures Des's solidity and steadfastness but has less success with the inner contradictions that ultimately endanger Des's cherished career. This said, De Niro remains captivating to watch even in his most understated mode; and at a few privileged moments he comes close to unveiling the profound ambivalence that roils Des's conflicted soul. The great Robert Duvall is at his greatest playing Des's big brother Tom, whose hard-working habits mask an unsavory past as a bagman for Amsterdam's illegal payoffs. Although he knows how the law is supposed to work, he's more committed to his idea of how it ought to work. Increasingly disgusted by Amsterdam's arrogance, he embarrasses Des with public outbursts of rage and hate against the crooked boss. At the same time he pursues the Virgin Tramp case wherever it may lead, which turns out to be closer and closer to home. Another high-caliber performance comes from Kenneth McMillan as Tom's partner Crotty, whose blend of morbid humor and crusty cynicism plays beautifully off Tom's versions of the same qualities. Applause also goes to Cyril Cusack as the cardinal; Burgess Meredith as the old monsignor; Rose Gregorio as Tom's mistress; and especially Charles Durning, who manages to humanize Amsterdam without making him anything other than the nasty, hypocritical felon he is. In the technical area, top honors go to cinematographer Owen Roizman for vividly conveying both the splendor of Catholic ritual and the grittiness of LA's underworld. The screenplay, by novelist Dunne and his wife Joan Didion, preserves the overall structure of Dunne's book, beginning and ending with a reunion of Tom and Des years after the Virgin Tramp case. Key lines of dialogue are also retained, although they're sometimes moved around a bit. The picture has occasional slack moments, but on the whole Grosbard and company keep its dramatic momentum pumping along. Reviews of True Confessions have been all over the map. Vincent Canby of the New York Times called it "one of the most entertaining, most intelligent and most thoroughly satisfying commercial American films in a very long time," establishing Grosbard as "a major American film maker." By contrast, Roger Ebert wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times that although it "contains scenes that are just about as good as scenes can be," the movie as a whole left him "disoriented and disappointed." I similarly deemed it "a disappointing stab at...truly adult cinema" in my Christian Science Monitor review, chiding it for "too little energy and too much sensationalism around the edges." I hereby change my tune, though. The movie is more powerful today than when it was new, including De Niro's acting, which now strikes me as less dully monotonous than boldly minimalist. Given the major talents who contributed to True Confessions, it's a shame that MGM doesn't provide so much as a theatrical trailer to enhance the DVD edition. The film itself looks fine, though, and the mostly superlative acting comes across with undiminished oomph. Like the novel it's based on, Grosbard's film is an admirable success, if not quite a total one. For more information about True Confessions, visit MGM. To order True Confessions, go to TCM Shopping. by David Sterritt

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Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States Winter January 1, 1981

Released in United States Winter January 1, 1981