The Onion Field (1979) Review


Directed by Harold Becker



James Woods as Gregory Powell

John Savage as Karl Hettinger

Franklyn Seales as Jimmy Smith

Ted Danson as Ian Campbell

“We told you we were going to let you go. But have you ever heard of the Little Lindbergh Law?”

Ian Campbell’s answer to the above question is irrelevant. He is already dead. The Onion Field is a true story about the kidnap and murder of a police officer by two disturbed criminals in Los Angeles, 1963.

The Onion Field features an early, career-making performance by James Woods. Woods plays Gregory Powell, a charming, quick-talking, but unstable career criminal who befriends Jimmy Smith (Franklyn Seales), an insecure volatile frequently in and out of prison. Woods delivers a characteristic edginess and sleazy attitude in his portrayal of Powell.

“After all I’ve done for you, and you dare to steal from me?” (This image belongs to MGM)

John Savage portrays detective Karl Hettinger, a former marine who is partnered with bagpipe-playing Ian Campbell.(Ted Danson). These men are indistinct but destined for infamy when their lives fatally collide.

After Hettinger and Campbell pull over the two criminals, Powell holds Campbell hostage and forces Hettinger to give up his gun.

The kidnapped officers are taken out to an onion field where Powell, mistakenly believing that kidnapping police officers was a capital offense, shoots Campbell. As Hettinger flees in terror, either Powell or Smith execute the fallen Campbell. Hettinger is able to escape and the two criminals are arrested and tried.

This video belongs to MGM. All rights reserved.

The Onion Field’s environment is authentic and gritty. It is based on the factual book of the same name by Joseph Wambaugh, who was involved extensively with the film. All the locations, clothes and cars are exactly the same as the real event.

The courtroom scenes are taken almost verbatim from the real life transcripts. This gives the movie more of a documentary-feel with harsh realism not seen in many crime dramas.

The acting is a powerhouse in The Onion Field. James Woods gives a frightening performance as Powell. He is so unpredictable and creates much nervous tension in the film’s quieter scenes. He perfectly complements Franklyn Seales as Smith, a man who is so convinced of his own innocence when everyone around him thinks he is guilty.

Franklyn Seales, left, and James Woods, right (This image belongs to MGM)

Ted Danson has only a small role but he has a charm which amplifies his shocking murder. John Savage’s performance is the emotional opposite to Woods’s, but is no less compelling.

Savage, as Hettinger, is completely broken by the event. He is ostracised by fellow police officers and branded a coward for giving up his gun. One scene where he attempts suicide is almost unbearable to watch.

Savage is effectively honest as a man abused by the system and never able to recover from the traumatic event.

John Savage, left, and Ted Danson, right (This image belongs to Filmbobbery)

The direction by Harold Becker is solid, if a bit unremarkable. The focus of the film is on the story and acting. The first half has brisk character development but the trial has some pacing issues.

Years of legal testimony and appeals are very condensed with too many characters. An entire movie could have been made on either the post-traumatic Hettinger or the subsequent prolonged trial. There is not enough development for both. The last scene is also a bit overly sentimental and doesn’t effectively wrap up the preceding action.

Despite these flaws, I do think The Onion Field is a worthy, unappreciated exposure of judicial flaws. If it was fictional, it would be a dramatic telling of police officers in an uncharacteristically sensitive and vulnerable light. The fact that it is all real makes for poignant and powerful viewing.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆


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