Color, 1981, 108m.
Directed by Ulu Grosbard
Starring Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, Charles Durning, Kenneth McMillan, Ed Flanders, Cyril Cusack, Burgess Meredith
Kino Lorber (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC), MGM (DVD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Color, 1981, 108m.
Los Angeles has inspired some excellent crime films over the decades, and one of the many little gems often overlooked in the wake of more famous titles like Chinatown is this fascinating take on the real-life Black Dahlia murder as a springboard for a larger look at a city in transition. In the late 1940s, crime lord and brothel owner Jack Amsterdam (Durning) has managed to become a powerful construction mover and player in the city with ties both past and present to two brothers, police detective Tom Spellacy (Duvall) and Monsignor Des Spellacy (De Niro). The cop and priest both try to live by some kind of moral code but find themselves repeatedly compromised and undermined by the world around them with bribes and the promise of power causing them regrets that may linger for decades. When an aspiring starlet who happened to be Catholic and a reputed prostitute turns up murdered and cut in half, it leads the brothers on the path to Amsterdam and his cronies with a sordid path along the way leading through the world of underground pornography and Amsterdam's illicit past.
True Confessions was based on a 1977 novel by John Gregory Dunne (The Panic in Needle Park), who collaborated with wife Joan Didion (Play It As It Lays) on the screenplay. Obviously the big draw here from the beginning was seeing De Niro (fresh off his Oscar-winning turn in Raging Bull for the same studio, United Artists) and Duvall finally appear together in a film after they only appeared in totally separate timelines in The Godfather Part II. Add to that a solid director with Ulu Grosbard (whose previous film was 1978's acclaimed Straight Time), legendary French composer Georges Delerue composing the first of what turned out to be many Hollywood scores, and an outstanding supporting cast including a juicy turn by Burgess Meredith as De Niro's sidelined mentor, and you'd seem to have the recipe for a major hit.
Unfortunately the public appetite for fare like this, which would have been right at home in the 1970s, was waning quickly, and United Artists was still reeling from the major losses over Heaven's Gate that led to it being handed off from Transamerica to MGM (which would soon become MGM/UA). The same year also saw other R-rated UA films like Cutter's Way and Eye of the Needle prove to have trouble finding an audience for thoughtful adult-oriented thrillers, making this and its ilk a sort of swan song for an era. The film went on to enjoy frequent cable airings throughout the '80s and became something of a VHS staple in one of those familiar oversized gray boxes, but since then it's a film you discover through word of mouth or an appreciation of the two stars rather than something known to general public.
MGM released a DVD of True Confessions in 2007, which went out of print three years later. That release wasn't bad, but a far superior HD master started popping up on the MGM HD channel in 2012, prompting hopes for a Blu-ray upgrade at some point. That came to pass in October of 2014 when Kino Lorber released it on both Blu-ray and DVD from the same HD master, which looks quite good and accurate to the shadowy, somewhat earthy theatrical texture seen in prints back in '81 (pretty similar to the look of Cutter's Way, albeit with a '40s veneer). The film was beautifully shot by pro Owen Roizman (The French Connection, Network, The Exorcist, and of course Grosbard's Straight Time), and this presentation marks the best way for potential fans to make the film's acquaintance outside of the extremely unlikely chance of a mint 35mm print popping up for a revival screening. The Dolby Stereo mix presented here in two-channel DTS-HD MA isn't particularly showy, but it sounds like your average early '80s theatrical audio presentation all the way. The sole extra is the theatrical trailer, which tries to get a grip on the complex story and plays up the prestige value of the two leading men.