In the post-war 1940s, Desmond Spellacy is a young and ambitious Roman Catholic monsignor in the Los Angeles archdiocese. His older brother Tom is a hard-working homicide detective with the L.A. police department. They are fond of each other, but spend little time together.
Des is the pride and joy of aging Cardinal Danaher because of his skill at developing church projects while keeping down costs. He cuts a corner now and then, overlooking the shady side of construction mogul Jack Amsterdam, a lay Catholic who uses his ties to the Monsignor for the congregation's benefit but mainly for his own.
One day in L.A., a young woman is found brutally murdered, her body cut in two in a vacant lot. Tom Spellacy and his partner, Frank Crotty, are put in charge of the case. The woman, Lois Fazenda, is labeled "the Virgin Tramp" by the local press for apparently being a Catholic as well as a prostitute, turning it into a sensational case.
Tom Spellacy's investigation leads him to a local madam, Brenda Samuels. Tom was well acquainted with Brenda years earlier while working as a bagman for Amsterdam, whose corruption extends to the local prostitution ring.
Brenda has called the police to report the death of a Catholic priest while he was engaging the services of one of her girls. While there, Brenda reproaches Tom for doing nothing for her while she was sent to prison for running one of Jack's whorehouses. Tom later believes the dead girl appeared in a stag film and obtains a copy. He and Frank notice that one of the girls in the movie was present at Brenda's brothel on the day they came to retrieve the philandering priest.
Tom now wants Brenda's help in tracking down the girl who made the movie with the murdered girl. Frank spots the girl a few days later being taken into the jail entrance after a roundup. They learn that the dead girl was a favorite of a local porno movie director named Standard because of her tattoo. Tom learns that Standard did his filming in a deserted army post in the foothills outside L.A.
At lunch with his brother, Tom provokes Amsterdam with secret facts about Amsterdam's dark side, which makes the Monsignor increasingly uncomfortable. Des tells the Cardinal the time has come to cut church ties with Amsterdam for good. Des discusses "getting rid of Jack" with his cronies who remind him that such a thing would not be easily done. Sonny, a corrupt local city council member and local mortician, proposes that they give Jack a salutation dinner.
Tom Spellacy's anger builds as his brother organizes a Catholic "layman of the year" banquet for Amsterdam as a gesture of appreciation before ending the church's relationship with him. Tom walks up to Amsterdam at the banquet and pulls off his sash while asking him loudly: "Were you wearing this when you were banging Lois Fazenda?" Jack attacks Tom and they scream obscenities at each other.
Tom goes to Standard's "studio" and finds the floor and a bathtub covered with dried blood. He also finds Chinese food, which the medical examiner doing the autopsy had found in her stomach. Tom and Frank go looking for Standard but learn that he had been killed in a car accident twelve hours after the murder.
Tom wants to drag in Amsterdam for questioning simply to humiliate him in public but Frank talks him out of it. Tom starts digging around and discovers that the dead girl had been messing around with several community leaders.
Amsterdam's lawyer, Dan Campion, subtly warns the Monsignor that his brother the cop had better lay off unless they want it revealed publicly that Des, too, knew the murdered girl. She met the Monsignor only once in passing, whereas she had a sexual relationship with both Amsterdam and the lawyer. But the simple fact that Des had any kind of involvement in such a lurid case could permanently stain his reputation with the church.
Tom Spellacy won't be talked out of it. His determination becomes complete when Brenda is found dead, an apparent suicide. He decides to have Amsterdam picked up and taken to headquarters, which in turn leads to the Monsignor being treated the same way.
His rising career curtailed, Des asks to be relocated to a remote parish in the desert, the same place to which his mentor in the diocese had been exiled, the location where the movie begins and ends, where Des and Tom meet after years apart. By the time Tom comes to see him, Des is dying. Tom feels everything is his fault, but Des is at peace and absolves his brother of any and all blame.Robert De Niro as Msgr. Desmond Spellacy
Robert Duvall as Detective Tom Spellacy
Charles Durning as Jack Amsterdam
Cyril Cusack as the Cardinal
Burgess Meredith as Monsignor Fargo
Kenneth McMillan as Det. Frank Crotty
Ed Flanders as Dan Campion
Dan Hedaya as Howard Terkel
Rose Gregorio as Brenda
Jeanette Nolan as Mrs. Spellacy
The character of Msgr. Spellacy is thought to be based on Msgr. Benjamin Hawkes, who oversaw growth of the Diocese of Los Angeles from the 1950s into the 1980s. De Niro prepared for the role of the monsignor by observing Msgr. Hawkes as he said Mass.
The movie did not make a large profit, but critics and audiences praised the film for the performances of both stars and the references to the Black Dahlia case and Cain and Abel story. It currently boasts a 'fresh' 75% rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.
Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun Times gave the film 3 stars out of a possible 4. He wrote that while the performances were good and some individual scenes very well-crafted, the movie as a whole was disappointing: "the attentions of the filmmakers were concentrated so fiercely on individual moments that nobody ever stood back to ask what the story was about. It's frustrating to sit through 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."
The film was panned by William F. Buckley, Jr., who had praised the original novel. In his review of the film in the National Review, Buckley reportedly "bemoaned the film's depiction of a priest as a murder suspect, and the broader 'ideologization of religion' in contemporary culture" and "complained that 'Robert De Niro is badly miscast. He is never entirely convincing.'"
True Confessions was released to DVD by MGM Home Video on April 17th, 2007 as a Region 1 widescreen DVD, by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment in 2009 as a part of the Robert De Niro 7 Movie Collection (with True Confessions as the seventh disc of the set), and to Blu-Ray DVD by Kino Lorber on October 7, 2014.