Movie Review: True Confessions

by Steve Lancaster5/8/18
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. • (110 views)

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22 Responses to Movie Review: True Confessions

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I can’t remember whether I’ve seen this or not, Steve. And although Robert De Niro is insufferable politically (the man is vile), these are two of my favorite actors. It is currently available for streaming rental on Amazon Prime for four bucks.

    On another note, and not to steal your thunder, but speaking of crime dramas: Last night I watched a Julian Fellowes (screenplay) adaptation of an Agatha Christie tale: Crooked House. This is a recent one from 2017.

    For those (like myself) who role their eyes at some of Christie’s excesses, there are virtually none in this production. The plot is just enough to hang a number of interesting character upon, but not too much. (No double or triple gadget ending.)

    Grandpa Leonides, a rich and secretive tycoon, is found dead, his insulin accidentally (or intentionally) having been switched with some other medicine he used. But this other medicine, taken intravenously, is fatal.

    Max Irons (there’s surely a stage name) plays private detective Charles Hayward who is called in by the dead man’s granddaughter, Sophia, to investigate. Hayward’s father was a renowned Scotland Yard detective. Knowing the delicacy of the situation (Grandpa apparently assisted the CIA for a number of years), Chief Inspector Taverner of The Yard is in cahoots with Hayward taking the commission. For the family, it’s either a private dick or the tabloid publicity that would come with an all-out Yard investigation. And Taverner can rely on Hayward to pass him all relevant information that he can dig up.

    Hayward reluctantly takes the case, partially because the person who hired him, Sophia, is an old fling from his days in Cairo. And that ended badly.

    Glenn Close (yes, she’s good in this) and Christina Boom-Boom Hendricks round out a solid cast. I didn’t recognize Gillian Anderson as Magda Leonides, but something in the character looked familiar but I just couldn’t place her — and didn’t until the end credits rolled.

    Nearly all family members are suitably vile, narcissistic, frivolous, or money-grubbing. But none of them, I would say, are elevated to mere bombastic stereotypes. The realism of the characters and plot, combined with absolutely 100% professional atmospherics (cinematography and soundtrack) raise a rather run-of-the-mill story to very watchable heights.

    The proles at IMDB give this a mere 6.3 stars. But if you liked 2001’s Gosford Park, I think you’ll like this production as well.

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    The Black Dahlia case may be the most spectacular LA murder case aside from Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, which is significant for the politics, not the murder itself. We still get books about, such as one by a woman who claims her father is the murderer. (I don’t know the details, not having read it.) I have no idea if the plot of this movie is in any way linked to the actual crime, or is just another attack on the Catholic church.

    Incidentally, Brad, I checked and the actor really is Max (short for Maximilian) Irons. This happens occasionally; Blossom Rock was the real (married) name of the actress who played Grandmama on The Addams Family.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Blossom Rock. Great name. As is Max Irons….but more as the title character of some pulp fiction novel, not a movie star. Still, if it’s his real name, he doesn’t have to apologize for it certainly.

      Now that I’ve finished reading Steve’s review, I’m quite sure I’ve seen “True Confessions” and liked it. But it’s been a while.

      Not that “True Confessions” is a thriller, but a couple other “also has a priest” movies that I can recommend are: The Third Miracle (with Ed Harris as the priest), Stigmata (more of a horror movie, but one of Gabriel Byrne’s best roles as the priest),

      Here’s IMDB’s list of movies with priests in them. And then there’s Hard men of God: a guide to cinema’s most badass priests. Gotta agree with Rex Harrison from “The Agony and the Ecstasy” prominent on that list. The National Catholic Register has 10 More Great Movies About Priests.

      Other memorable ones are Father O’Malley, of course, and Father Barry from “On the Waterfront.” Father Flanagan rates way up there as well. Here’s Catholic Culture.org’s The 50 Best Catholic Movies of All Time which somehow includes “Casablanca,” but who can blame them? It also includes “Chariots of Fire,” and I indeed can blame them. But it’s generally a good list of movies that won’t rot the soul.

      A list by Spirituality Practice.com features one of my all-time favorites (speaking of which): Robert Duvall in “The Apostle,” although he’s a Protestant minister of some type (as legitimate as many of them, I suppose) rather than a priest. “Into Great Silence” is another film popular with Catholic list-makers. I’ve seen it and loved it but likely only one out of a thousand people should even bother. It’s a highly specialized movie.

      Another notable priest (if a bit of a modern touchy-feely one, but not yet girly-man by any means) is Father Peter Clifford from Ballykissangel, a de facto soap opera that I would say had at least two strong seasons. When Stephen Tompkinson left, it was basically then a different show. One of the main shticks of the show was the sexual tension between handsome young Father Clifford and the fetching Assumpta Fitzgerald, played by Dervia Kirwin (you couldn’t make up that name, could you Timothy?). Mr. Kung should be aware that this shtick is heads-and-tails above the awful thing between Vicar Sidney Chambers and Amanda Hopkins in “Grantchester.” It still presses the issue too far, but it’s at least well done and believable.

      Still, as likely unrealistic as he is, my favorite cinema priest remains Father O’Malley.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        According to wikipedia, dervla kirwan is an anglicization of an Irish name. I would agree with Pope Sixtus in The Agony and the Ecstasy and the 2 main priests in The Exorcist, but I would also add Reverend Frank Scott in The Poseidon Adventure. There’s a kick-ass priest.

        As to Catholic films, I can certainly agree with many of their choices even if they have little directly to do with the Church. But one good one they missed is The Trouble With Angels. It’s a fun movie made even more interesting when the bratty girl decides at the end to become a nun.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          Yes, the priests in “The Exorcist” were extraordinary.

          He’s not a priest, but a prominent Franciscan friar — nonetheless, one of my favorites is Sean Connery as William of Baskerville in “The Name of the Rose.”

          Another bad-ass priest is Reverend Shooter (Rene Belloq from Raiders) who has a small but significant bit in “Hot Fuzz.” Should we mention Gene Hackman as Reverend Frank Scott from The Poseidon Adventure?

          Eleven Oscar Nominations, with Three Wins, for Actors in Roles of Priests (Wins: O’Malley, Fitzgibbon, and Flanagan).

          By the way, as recently noted, Barry Fitzgerald was the judge in 1945’s “And Then There Were None.” Charles Bickford in “The Song of Bernadette” should also be given prominent notice. Is Richard Burton due notice for playing a reverend in The Night of the Iguana? What the hell. Burton is always due notice. He’s a regular whirling dervla.

  3. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    I saw some new information on the Black Dahlia case, a few months back. If I recall correctly, the claim was that the police covered up details about the murderer who was a pervert that worked for some local (I believe) nightclub owner/heavy.

    The girl in question was one of the many thousands who tried to get into the movies and, having little success, had become close to the nightclub owner/heavy who ran a number of illegal businesses. If I recall correctly, prostitution was one of these.

    Apparently, the girl started getting pushy and the criminal had her bumped off by one of his employees who was a pervert and nut.

    I knew the girl had been cut in-half, but I was amazed to learn that her upper-torso had been stuffed full of feces. Whoever did this was a real sicko.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I don’t believe I ever read that last little detail. I’m sure I’d recall it if I had. That solution sounds reasonable, but after 70 years we’ll probably never be sure.

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        Here is the article I was referring to. The killer also cut a “smile” into her face.

        http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5012767/Black-Dahlia-killer-revealed-new-book.html

        • Timothy Lane says:

          Truly vicious. I noticed that they blurred the gorier details in at least one of the photos. Of course, having seen the deathbed photo of Mary Jane Kelly, I can probably handle anything, at least in a black-and-white picture. Of course, weird sex often lead to bad ends; I understand this was the case with the woman on which Looking for Mr. Goodbar was based. (I did a parody of the title once, about a chocoholic’s search for the perfect candy bar.)

          • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

            Wasn’t Kelly the last of Jack-the-Ripper’s victims? I have seen photos of her and they were unbelievable.

            • Timothy Lane says:

              Yes. Incidentally, if you look carefully at the wall she’s next to, you will see what looks like a “JM”, probably in blood, on it. Shirley Harrison pointed this out in her book on the alleged diary of James Maybrick as the Ripper. (I verified that this wasn’t just a photographic trick by checking the copy of the same photo in Donald Rumbelow’s The Complete Jack the Ripper, written long before anyone named JM was linked to the case.)

  4. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I wouldn’t call a bio of the currently fraudulent pope a “faith-based film,” but here’s an article about the supposed resurgence and acceptance at Cannes of faith-based film.

    Some Christian films are better than others, of course. And I have not seen Kevin Sorbo’s God is Not Dead that is mentioned in the above article. I’ll state frankly that some of these religious-based shows can be treacly and simple-minded. And many “religious” films are just Progressivism-in-robes.

    But I certainly don’t mind a good religious theme in a film but tend toward those with a bit more reality and grit such as “The Agony and the Ecstasy” wherein you have not religion-bashing disguised as “struggling with faith.” Instead, it is fascinating to see Rex Harrison as the pope with far less faith (and a far more worldly man) than Michelangelo. For all intents and purposes, Michelangelo helps to renew the pope’s faith.

    And although perhaps not sharing a one-on-one correspondence with the Bible, “The Ten Commandments” with Charlton Heston is another truly great film with religion as a central theme. Islam could never make an honest film about itself like this without outing itself as the beastly totalitarian system (not just a religion) that it is.

    And although “The Apostle” with Robert Duvall could be said to make light of “phony preachers,” the deeper theme is redemption and man struggling, despite himself much of the time, to gain something better.

    Even a man almost as liberally obnoxious as Robert De Niro (Burt Lancaster) was sort of a “useful idiot for Jesus” in “Elmer Gantry”: a film that libtards and atheists would see as a verification that “all religion is bullshit.” And although exposing hucksterism is a useful theme for a movie, there was an undercurrent whereby the fraud was being hung upon something real — and thus could only be a fraud because something else was quite real. How many read this film this way is unknown. And how interesting to see how many of the churches (the ones who first ran away from, and then toward, Gantry) operated back then — excessively for-profit for all intents and purposes, something that hasn’t changed all that much.

    Even the outrageously funny “Dogma” — surely seen by simple-minded liberals and atheists as validation of their scorn for all things religious — actually has a powerful central theme of the reality of God and man’s quite fallen nature (as well as the idea of good and bad, as well as hypocrites and the faithful, even if it is the four-letter-word kind of faithful).

    It’s doubtful that Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian” had any other intention but to mock and belittle religion, showing it all to be just a misunderstanding. Smart people like them would never fall for it. But one should note who is the Master and who is the bitch, so to speak. Libtards are still drawn to the idea of Christ even if their only “safe” expression is mocking. They will keep crucifying Him if only to make damn sure there is no reality at all to Christianity. And the only safe way to do so is to keep the background noise level of mocking as constant and high as possible.

    One of the more modern and serious religious-based films is the 10-part Polish Dekalog. To quote the IMDB synopsis: “This is a series of ten shorts created for Polish Television, with plots loosely based upon the Ten Commandments, directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski.” I have not seen them all. I think I’ve viewed about 5 of them. But this is an artful (although not always particularly exciting) depiction of those commandments. It’s probably too “artsy,” to be honest, but this kind of film is the opposite of the kind of treacle so common in some low-budget religious-based productions.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      As long as we’re mentioning The Ten Commandments, we shouldn’t forget Ben Hur, a superb movie with a definite religious theme. One might also note, regarding Rex Harrison portraying a worldly and minimally religious pope, that this was typical of the era. Alexander VI aka Rodrigo Borgia certainly fit the mold, but seems to have been reasonably effective — though he didn’t have the likes of Michelangelo Buonarroti to maximize his fame.

      I would say that Life of Brian is a parody of many things, perhaps politics (and especially terrorists) most of all. I still have a hard time remembering which is the People’s Front of Judea and which is the Judean People’s Front. And it’s hard to beat the attempt to kidnap Pilate’s wife. The Romans often come off as competent (and even the PFJ admit all the good things they’ve done for Judea), but then there’s the search of the PFJ’s lair. Pilate’s speech is a classic — especially the fact that he’s so (self-) important that he’s able to be overtly unaware of his speech defect. And, yes, they also parody certain aspects of religion.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Ben Hur, for sure. Good point about Rex Harrison’s portrayal of a pope. I’m by no means a scholar, but I’m pretty sure that the popes back in that era were not galavanting the globe apologizing for Islam and “trying to make socialism great again.” One reason (and surely not the only one, perhaps not even the decisive one) that Catholics are generally not nonplussed by this recent fraudulent pope is that they’ve had so many scoundrels before and are (or at least some are) well aware of their history.

        I like the worldliness of Harrison’s Pope Julius II. There’s little sugar-coating of the realities of his world. He’s a general and religious leader wrapped into one. He knows the faults of man, including his own, too well to have retained much deep faith other than of the perfunctory kind.

        Enter Michelangelo who sees, with his artistic eye, a beautiful idea of God. He eventually shares some of that enthusiasm with Julius through his art. Great art is a physical and tangible proof of a beauty beyond atheist-materialist nihilism, which is why the barren souls of leftist artists put Jesus in a bottle of urine and call it “art.” Such souls are divorced from true beauty and all that is left to them is to try to call ugly “beautiful” and let groupthink give it a gloss of permanency and legitimacy.

        This still remains one of my favorite movies, religious or otherwise. Rarely are religious themes handled in such an adult way, especially given some of the constraints of 1965. If any Protestant hasn’t seen this film because it is too “Catholic,” shame on them.

        Indeed, Life of Brian is a great lampoon of many things, including the ones you stated. We should not be naive and imagine the that troupe as anything but left-leaning in thought regarding religion. Still, the humor has an air of ecumenicalism to it. They poke fun at a whole lot of things. I remain convinced (Trump is living proof to a great extent) that a modern Monty Python that skewered liberal beliefs would be a yuge hit.

        I have a good fwend in Rome, you know….

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          He’s a general and religious leader wrapped into one

          One must remember that the Pope ruled much of Italy, being head-of-state of the Papal States until the end of the 19th century. He had to be both a temporal and spiritual ruler.

          The rabidly anti-Catholic Free Mason, Garibaldi and his Red Shirts, tried to bring the Papal States into the Italian fold. He failed and it took some years before Italy and the Papal States were finally united.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            Garibaldi only overran the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. He may have wanted to go for the papal states, but the Sardinian government took them over as they had the other central Italian states. The only one remaining under papal control was Latium, which includes Rome — which Napoleon III sent French troops to protect. For some reason, they had to go home in 1870, and Italy promptly took over — after which the popes refused to have any contact with Italy until their concordat with Mussolini in 1929. (They supported the Central Powers, especially Austria-Hungary, during the Great War.)

            Incidentally, Bwad, that should be “a good fwiend in Wome”, of course.

            • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

              I kinda botched the accent. All wodes weed to Wome.

            • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

              Garibaldi only overran the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.

              He tried for Rome later and failed. This was after his 1860 success.

              Napoleon III withdrew from Rome due to the Franco-Prussian War which did not go well for France.

              • Timothy Lane says:

                When I say “for some reason”, that’s meant as a humorous rhetorical trick. Having read at least 2 books about the war ,including one by some guy named von Moltke (another of those humorous rhetorical tricks) . . .

                Perhaps my favorite incident from the Franco-Prussian War would be General Ducrot’s comment the night before the Battle of Sedan as he noticed that the Prussians’ fires extended all around the French: “Nous sommes dans un pot-de-chambre, et nous y serons emmerdé.”

              • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

                When I say “for some reason”, that’s meant as a humorous rhetorical trick.

                I knew it was, but thought I needed to clarify for others besides you and me.

                I am presently reading “The Struggle for Mastery in Europe:1848-1918”, by A.J.P. Taylor and happen to be on the chapter which describes how the French screwed the pooch and started the war by their own arrogance and stupidity.

              • Timothy Lane says:

                I suspected you knew. Arrogance is a good way to describe the French attitude, and not just in 1870. This is something people should remember when they blame all these wars on Germany. Bismarck wanted war, but he needed France to start. Kind of like Lincoln in 1861.

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