February 19, 2021

True Confessions (1981)
Grade: 68/100

Director: Ulu Grosbard
Stars: Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, Charles Durning

What it's about. Set in Los Angeles in 1947, aside from two 1963 framing scenes at a small parish in the Mojave Desert. Robert Duvall is a no-nonsense tough-guy homicide detective. His brother is Robert De Niro, a fiscally minded priest and the right-hand man of Cardinal Danaher (Cyril Cusack). De Niro is also Duvall's brother, despite different temperaments. De Niro is far more circumspect.

The body of a beautiful young woman (Amanda Cleveland) is discovered dismembered. The sensationalist media dubs her the Virgin Tramp. Duvall is assigned to the case, along with corrupt veteran policeman Kenneth McMillan. They discover connections between the victim and businessman Amsterdam (Charles Durning), a prominent donor to the local Catholic Church.

The actual killer turns out to be a porno film producer whose character never appears onscreen. But Duvall develops a hatred for Amsterdam, especially after the suicide of Duvall's prostitute friend Rose Gregorio, Cleveland's madam. Duvall blames Gregario's death on Amsterdam, a pimp who, years ago, employed Duvall as a bagman.

When Duvall turns up the heat on Amsterdam, his lawyer Ed Flanders threatens to expose De Niro's minor involvement in the murder of the "Virgin Tramp." De Niro once gave her a car ride, unaware of her activities as a prostitute. Burgess Meredith has a supporting role as an ornery priest sidelined by Danaher.

The film was based on the best seller by John Gregory Dunne. He also wrote the screenplay, along with his wife Joan Didion. The story is loosely based on the notorious Black Dahlia case, which was never solved. De Niro's character is based on Monsignor Benjamin Hawkes.

True Confessions was the first movie De Niro made after Raging Bull. In fact, the release of True Confessions was delayed by 18 months so that it would not interfere with the promotion of the more commercial Raging Bull. Both movies were distributed by United Artists.

How others will see it. De Niro and Duvall both appeared in The Godfather Part II (1974), but had no scenes together, since their characters existed in different continents and timelines. Thus, True Confessions is the only movie that pairs the "Two Roberts." During their careers, both De Niro and Duvall have one Best Actor Oscar and seven Oscar acting nominations. De Niro, though, has a second Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, so we must give him the edge in their competition.

Despite its famous co-stars, True Confessions is relatively little known. It was a box office disappointment. It received little critical acclaim outside of the prestigious Venice Film Festival, where both Duvall and De Niro walked away with trophies.

Today at imdb.com, the movie has a middling 7300 user votes and an okay-plus user rating of 6.3 out of 10. Older viewers like the film a bit more than their younger counterparts. The user reviews, though, are generally positive, with much praise heaped upon the celebrated leads. How I felt about it. Apparently, one cannot escape office politics, even within the Catholic Church. Cardinal Danaher likes Robert De Niro because he spends Church money wisely, but also because De Niro does Danaher's bidding. Burgess Meredith does not, and is banished to a remote desert parish. Nonetheless, when De Niro's reputation is publicly tarnished, he is also dropped by the Cardinal like a hot potato. The moral is, be a Yes Man to get ahead, and also avoid any connections to grisly murders.

Both Duvall and De Niro are fine. De Niro and McMillan are a bit old for homicide detectives. Rose Gregorio, the wife of director Ulu Grosbard, also seems miscast. Her suicide lacks a credible motive, as does the murder of the "Virgin Tramp" by the porno film producer. And even in the late 1940s, it is difficult to believe that De Niro's career within the Catholic Church could be derailed because he once gave a car ride to a stranger who later turned out to be a murdered prostitute.