by Steve Lancaster 5/8/18
The LA Cop • There are many movies and television series about police in LA. Some are iconic like Dragnet and others more of the life of the beat cop, like Police Story. Others do not feature LA police but just as easily could have been made there, Hill Street Blues is one of those.
For at least 75 years movies and television shows have been made about police in Los Angeles. Some of the most renowned and talented stars have played the skeptical policeman or detective. Bogart immediately comes to mind, as does Jack Nicholson and Robert Mitchem. There are several others in the film noir genres.
One of the classics is a 1981 movie, True Confessions, starring Robert De Niro and Robert Devall. The screenplay is by Joan Didion and John Greggory Dunn based on his 1977 book. The brothers are Irish Catholic. Desmond Spellacy (De Niro) is a priest (Monsignor) and chancellor of the archdiocese and on the fast track to bishop and cardinal. His brother Tom (Devall) is a homicide detective with the LAPD.
The movie hangs on a historical event; the Black Dahlia murder of 1949 still in the unsolved case files of the LAPD. Even for LA and after the Manson murders it is one of the most gruesome murders in LA. In the movie, Tom Spellacy and his partner are assigned the murder and his pursuit of the killer takes him to the center of the diocese and his brother.
The movie opens some 10-15 years after the events. Tom Spellacy is visiting with his brother Desmond at a small parish in the high desert, 29 Palms. Physically and spiritually as far from LA as its possible to get. After brief greetings, the brothers talk, and Desmond tells Tom that he is dying of heart failure. The rest of the movie is Tom’s flashback to the post-war 40s.
A young woman, Lois Fazenda, (Missy Cleveland, her only part is being nude and dead, but she did a Playboy centerfold) is found murdered in a vacant lot. She has been cut completely in half. Lieutenant Spellacy and his partner investigate the crime scene. There is no blood at the crime scene, thus she was not murdered where her body was dumped. There are no clues and the detectives assume that this is a 9-5 murder, soon forgotten and consigned to cold case files.
The course of the investigation takes Tom into the shadier corners of politics in the diocese. Involving the corrupt contractor who built many of the schools and churches, the diocese lawyer, (Ed Flanders) and major contributors to the church. Before the war, Tom was the bagman in Wilshire Vice for the contractor, Jack Armstrong (Charles Durning). He collected the payoffs to police in the vice squad from the brothels operated by Amsterdam.
It is a cop story, a who-done-it, but more importantly it a story about the brothers and redemption. Desmond is conflicted by his desire to be a good priest and his ambition to exercise power. Tom is no longer involved in corruption. In the book he has a wife who is in a mental institution, however, the movie plays him as single. As the investigation progresses Tom discovers that the murdered girl was passed around the diocese like a piece of candy. From the contractor
Armstrong to the lay leaders to the attorney. She even rode back from Santa Anita racetrack in the Cardinal’s auto. Tom tells his brother, “If this cop does his job there are going to be some very unhappy people in the diocese.”
Desmond who has been getting increasingly conflicted with his role as the power broker responds, “I don’t think I care anymore.” Tom continues his investigation. He finds the murder scene and quickly deduces the probable killer. The real killer is a photographer and pornographer who died the same day as the girl but in an automobile accident. Just to harass Armstrong Tom arrests him for the murder and the whole unseemly mess unravels in the press.
Since Desmond is in living purgatory the viewer assumes that the church must have cleaned house. Armstrong dies soon after his arrest and the real killer, also deceased, is never actually revealed. However, Desmond has become a good priest in the wilds of the high desert. He tells Tom he has no regrets and request to be buried there rather than in LA.
What makes this a great movie is the actors, De Niro and Devall. You really believe that De Niro is a priest. He has the mannerisms, the look and body language of the Jesuit trained. It’s a pleasure to watch him perform. Devall on the other hand is a cop and a good one, in spite of his questionable past he is good police. The moral and ethical failings of both the priest and the cop are on full display. The irony is that despite different vocations both brothers are very much the same. Indeed, how much real difference is there between priest and police? The only visible difference is the uniform. • (104 views)