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True Confessions

1981 MGM, Director: Ulu Grosbard

Remember back in the day before De Niro became a slapstick artist? After an unexplainable delay, True Confessions, the 1981 noir classic and first screen teaming of De Niro (Rocky & Bullwinkle) and Duvall (Godfather II) is available on DVD. I guess MGM was busy polishing the making-of bonus disk for Van Wilder.

On its surface, True Confessions recounts the story of the real life 1947 virgin tramp murder, a story revisited last year in De Palma’s failed The Black Dahlia. Beneath the whodunit, in pure noir style, bubbles a bleak tale of restrained sibling love, parochial corruption, loyalty and its cost, and finally, redemption.

Set against the clannish, back-scratching Irish Catholic Church society of a beautifully recreated 1940’s Los Angeles, True Confessions studies the crossed moralities of two Irish American brothers: Monsignor Des Spellacy (De Niro), an up-and-coming Catholic star and church fixer, and Tom (Duvall), a murder detective once on the take (the immigrant Irish mother’s dream team of a priest and a cop). Neither brother ever stops to question doing wrong for what they perceive as a greater good—selling indulgences, intimidating prostitutes, offering bribes for zoning variances, collecting payoffs for gangsters. Whatever it takes to raise a few bob for the church or just get good old-fashioned revenge does not count as sin in the eyes of God or Man.

As bagmen for their retrospective institutions, their actions have repercussions. The good Monsignor’s cloistered superiority provides him the comfort of hypocrisy; the bad cop’s worldliness offers him the discomfort of self-awareness. Monsignor Des may visit his mother’s hospital bed, but he plays whore for his boss, the Cardinal. Tom is nobody’s bitch; he just likes whores. Tom, though the elder, remains the bane of his Ma’s existence. He has sinned and repented, but won’t be forgiven. Mom sees the world through the priest’s tinted glasses. The Black Dahlia victim lies cut in two in an L.A. wasteland, physically mirroring the moral tear separating the siblings. You can use two stretchers to carry her away or one, but she will never be whole. Both brothers suffer from the Irish male malady of emotional paralysis, unable to apologize or express love until too late (or drunk). Honesty can be expressed only through the darkened panel of a confessional; truths must be kept within the walls of that confinement. Truth, in this church, serves to imprison rather than free the soul. There is no state of grace to be found in this box.

True Confessions studies the loneliness of two stubborn men refusing to acknowledge their connection and similarity. Having shared a fanatical Catholic mother and an uncommunicative father, they should have each other but don’t. One has God, one is divorced (another sin), and they both sleep alone at night. When leaving L.A., Rose, the aged prostitute, meets Tom to say goodbye. “It’s nice to have someone to say goodbye to,” she says. Earlier she had said to him, “I need you like I need another fuck.” In this film, such a turnabout suffices as redemption.

True Confessions demonstrates that great Catholics can only attain purity through mortification and crucifixion. Only through self-realization can salvation be reached and self-realization is the true confession. But this is Noir and no good deed goes unpunished. For something as big as salvation, you get to pay a big price.

P.S. It’s a good murder mystery as well.


Karl O'Toole


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2007

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