The movie stars Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall as brothers, the former a monsignor, the latter a cop, who become embroiled in a murder case in 1940s Los Angeles. Duvall’s character, an angry and bitter crusader for justice, clashes with the powerful but less than savoury friends of the archdiocese, of which De Niro’s character is the very ambitious chancellor. In the end, no one is free of the odour of lust and greed and the hunger for power. The monsignor becomes the scapegoat for the sins of the archdiocese and is banished to a parish in the desert, the same parish to which he was ordered to pasture an elderly priest whose self-appointed role as clerical conscience was more than his jaded cardinal could tolerate.
As the single-minded Tom Spellacy roots around in his investigation of the murder, he finds links between the victim and Tom's sometime mistress Brenda (Rose Gregorio), who runs what is crudely though accurately described as ''a $5 cathouse.'' There also are connections between Lois and Jack Amsterdam (Charles Durning), a big-time Los Angeles contractor and pillar of the Catholic Church, a fellow who is one of Msgr. Desmond Spellacy's softer touches. Jack Amsterdam, former pimp, now receives introductions to the Pope, builds church schools at cost and gets honored as ''the Catholic layman of the year.''
As the investigation continues, the connections become increasingly complicated and dangerous for just about everybody, except, perhaps, the urbane Cardinal Danaher (Cyril Cusack), who has made his archdiocese one the the country's wealthiest, and Frank Crotty (Kenneth McMillan), Tom Spellacy's partner. Crotty is a cheerfully crooked cop who takes small bribes but who would never railroad an innocent man to the gas chamber, as Tom might.
A web of sin and corruption connects nearly every character in this story; the tawdry and tainted atmosphere—noir on the surface but actually something deeper and more disturbing—is almost palpable. The innocent and wayward are the victims of the powerfully evil, and as the movie ends there is but a tiny glimpse of redemption in the self-awareness of the monsignor and the tentatively expressed love between the brothers.
The writing in this film is nothing short of superb. There is barely a contrived or artificial note in the entire movie and not one scene is predictable. When Tom Spellacy meets the parents of the murdered girl at the train station from where they will accompany her body home, he discovers a clue that will connect a big-time property developer to the case. The father is talking about his daughter and produces a small notebook in which she has written a sweet but sophomoric poem which the father begins to read but cannot finish. He gives the notebook to Spellacy who completes the poem and discovers on the same page a telephone number. In any other whodunit (which, of course, this film is not) the notebook would simply have appeared and the number found as the detective searched through it. Here, however, the pathos of the father’s loss completely disarms the viewer and overshadows the discovery of the number until a subsequent scene when a reverse directory reveals that the number belongs to the developer.
The characters, even the most minor of them, are fully drawn, from Brenda, the “$5 cathouse" madam, subtly and beautifully portrayed by Rose Gregorio, to the parents of the dead girl, who appear in only one scene. Unlike the caricatures of bishops we see in films like The Third Miracle and Priest, the cardinal in True Confessions, played by Cyril Cusack, is so brilliantly understated in his inhumanity we are compelled to believe he is real.
The performances of De Niro and Duvall, as well as several of the supporting actors, are also outstanding.
Mr. De Niro and Mr. Duvall are at the peak of their talents here. They work so beautifully together it sometimes seems like a single performance, two sides of the same complex character. But then the film is stuffed with memorable performances. They include those of Mr. [Charles] Durning and Ed Flanders, as the most prominent laymen in the monsignor's parish; Burgess Meredith as Seamus Fargo, an ancient, crotchety, seriously committed monsignor who's being given the expedient sack in the course of the film; Miss Gregorio, who has never before had a film role to equal this one, which she brings to vivid life, and Mr. Cusack and Mr. [Kenneth] McMillan.
True Confessions is more a morality tale than a classic film noir. In the film, the powerful and corrupt, whether they be businessmen or cardinals, may be clever enough or well connected enough to escape the judgment of the law, but they cannot avoid the final judgment—eternal damnation by the body of the faithful to the miserable hell endured by all cinematic villains.
Every time I watch this film, it stays with me for days. Highly recommended.