True Confessions (1981)
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)