From a real-life American tragedy, this tale of thoughtless brutality, cold-blooded murder and hard-won justice is "a prowling, gripping, disturbing movie" (Newsweek). Starring John Savage and James Woods and featuring a s... more »tunning attention to detail and an unflinching emotional honesty, The Onion Field is "intriguing, absorbing, powerful, well-acted" (Film Journal) ? and riveting from beginning to end. On March 9, 1963, LAPD officers Karl Hettinger (Savage) and Ian Campbell (Ted Danson) pull over a vehicle for making an illegal U-turn ? and find themselves held at gunpoint by two seasoned armed robbers. Forced to give up their guns and drive to a deserted road, both officers face the horror of becoming victims in a mob-style execution...but only one is able to escape into the bleak darkness of an onion field.« less
"Have you ever heard of the 'Little Lindbergh' Law?"
Robert J. Schneider | Tacoma, WA USA | 03/19/2002
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Those are the bone-chilling words spoken by kidnapper and soon-to-be killer Gregory Powell (brilliantly portrayed by James Woods) just seconds before fatally shooting Sgt. Ian Campbell (sensitively portrayed by a pre-"Cheers" Ted Danson) near an abandoned onion field in the disturbing, psychologically intense film THE ONION FIELD (1979). This film, directed in an appropriate brooding, deliberate style by Harold Becker, recounts the events that took place on March 2, 1963, as well as the aftermath of subsequent trials that took their mental toll on Sgt. Karl Hettinger (brilliantly portrayed by the underrated Method actor John Savage).Brilliant police novelist Joseph Wambaugh, whose earlier work "The Choirboys" became warped in the screenplay adaptation process and, as a result, got turned into an occasionally funny but ultimately unsatisfying movie in 1977 (in which James Woods, not coincidentally, had appeared), made sure this time that he had complete control over the screenplay for THE ONION FIELD. In doing so, the film version remains faithful to the events described in the book, as it recounts the slow build-up to the terrible crime in parallel scenes; one showing the criminals, and the other showing the police officers before their fateful meeting. It also shows the slow psychological breakdown that is suffered afterwards by the surviving officer, who is tortured by a seemingly endless cycle of trials as well as the derision of his police superiors who felt that he could have done more to prevent the tragedy. The only major fault that I find in the film is its irregular chronology of the aftermath; it provides no dates for each scene, which is bad because a scene that takes place days after the previous one will be followed by a sudden jump of ten or more years into the future. This gets confusing to the viewer, who will suddenly--an unexpectantly--find a longhaired 1970's Gregory Powell spouting out prison law to a fellow inmate following a scene where the crewcut '60's Powell is defending himself in court. Also, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that (temporarily) outlawed capital punishment, thereby instantly commuting Powell and Jimmy Smith's death sentences to that of life imprisonment, is barely even mentioned, despite its obvious significance. Nevertheless, THE ONION FIELD is a compelling, and faithful, dramatization of one of the most shocking murder cases of the 1960's. It is just another small piece of American history, and is recommended for anyone who wants more insight into the development of our modern legal and law enforcement systems. Of course, I also recommend it for everyone who considers themselves to be film buffs. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED"
They don't make 'em like this anymore
D. Hartley | Seattle, WA USA | 03/19/2001
(5 out of 5 stars)
""The Onion Field" brought up the tail end of a "golden era" of intelligent, gripping and realistic American crime dramas that began with 1967's "In Cold Blood", and continued through the 70's with films like "Serpico" and "Dog Day Afternoon". Director Harold Becker ("City Hall", "Sea Of Love") assembles the perfect cast to portray the true story of a kidnapping and cold-blooded murder of an L.A. police officer in 1963. John Savage's usually distracting tics and twitches are put to good use as the high-strung, guilt-ridden cop who survives the harrowing incident. James Woods infuses his edgy, psychotic cop-killer with an underlying native intelligence that makes him even more frightening than usual. Newcomer Franklyn Seales is quite memorable in a layered performance as Woods' conflicted accomplice (unfortunately, Seales all but vanished after this potentially star-making role). Ted Danson and Ronny Cox also give excellent support. The scene dramatizing the "onion field incident" itself chills the viewer with the same unblinking realism that made "In Cold Blood"'s deliberate, step-by-step re-enactment of the Clutter killings so haunting. The film can also be seen as an unflinching look at the American justice system, and the resulting lose/lose scenarios that sometimes occur on both sides of the docket. Riveting and unforgettable."
POWERFUL AND FITTING ADAPTATION
Gregory Saffady | Michigan | 11/09/2004
(4 out of 5 stars)
"The studio brass finally got it right when they let Joseph Wambaugh write and supervise the production of his (then most) powerful non-fiction masterwork. THE ONION FIELD is one of 1979's best films and it's brutality, both socially and judicially, is stunning. Harold Becker was the right director for this labor of love, an "A lister" at the time would have screwed it up and the film's intensity would have been lost under the hype. The acting is the core of THE ONION FIELD: James Woods was robbed of an Oscar nod. John Savage plays his heart out as the tortured Carl Hettinger and Ronny Cox is solid as Pierce R. Brooks (Brooks later wrote OFFICER DOWN CODE 3, which is a staple in any police library). Christopher Lloyd has a small important role as The Jailhouse Lawyer. This was justice for Wambaugh after his studio war over THE CHOIRBOYS (1977). Put this one in the win column. "
Best Role ever for James Woods
Bruce T. Johnston | Grand Blanc, MI USA | 12/27/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This movie is reminiscent of "In Cold Blood" because of the tragedy of it, and it's "duo" plot line, but is I think a much better rendition of the book, and Woods is outstanding in his role. You really get to where you like, but don't like this guy! You can see how he traps and sucks people in with his charm, but see his totally maniacal side as well. He really is a sick puppy in this!
It is a haunting movie that you will have scenes in your head for years, and certain lines will stay with you always if you are a true movie fan.
Ted Danson has a really good, if not brief (you'll see what I mean) part in the movie. It really is one that if you like this type of movie fare you will watch this one again and again on a Saturday afternoon curled up on the couch with the dog while your team is getting slaughtered on the gridiron!
One that I had to search out as part of my collection! A must see!"
A marvelous account of a true tragedy
Jeffrey Leach | Omaha, NE USA | 05/15/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I've never read a book from Joseph Wambaugh, the ex-cop turned author who wrote the source material for this movie, but I sort of feel like diving into his works after seeing how great this cinematic translation of a true event worked out. "The Onion Field" the movie went on receive good reviews. I think the success of the film comes from the fact that Wambaugh retained complete control over every aspect of the film's production. According to an extra on the DVD, director Harold Becker, Wambaugh himself, and some of the author's friends put up the money to make the movie. That's a smart move if you can swing it. Keeping the Hollywood suits out of the filmmaking process cuts down significantly on pesky interruptions and annoying demands for all sorts of post-production changes. A typical studio might well have turned "The Onion Field" into a different creature entirely, and we the audience would be all the poorer for it. This is a masterful movie, a film that examines the heinousness of murder, the myriad failings of the criminal justice system, and the psychological problems that everyone involved in such a gruesome crime experiences afterwards.
"The Onion Field" introduces us to two Los Angeles cops, Ian Campbell (Ted Danson) and Karl Hettinger (John Savage). The two have just become partners, and they couldn't be more unalike. Campbell loves playing bagpipes and is a friendly, talkative sort of fellow. Hettinger is quiet and somewhat awkward. We get the feeling they'll make a good team out on the road, though. Then the movie introduces us to a couple of pathetic losers, ex-cons Gregory Powell (James Woods) and Jimmy Smith (Franklyn Seales). The two men know each other because they spent time together in the same prison, and it's fairly obvious they have a weird psychological relationship with one another. Powell is a mouthy jerk, a big talker whose stint behind bars proves he isn't as big a fish as he thinks he is. Smith is quieter, but he's a follower that needs the attention Powell provides. The two plan to rob a liquor store as a way of starting their crime spree. Unfortunately, Campbell and Hettinger end up pulling the two men over on the pretext of a minor traffic infraction. The resulting stop leads to a series of events that find Powell and Smith taking the two cops hostage.
Here's where the title of the film comes in. Out in the sticks, out where the onion fields lay, the two criminals viciously gun down Ian Campbell. Hettinger, who willingly turned his gun over to the criminals, manages to escape the two and find help. At this point, the movie turns to a brutal examination of the American justice system and the psychological helplessness Hettinger feels over the death of his partner. Powell and Smith, quickly apprehended by the authorities, stand trial for capital murder. The courtroom quickly devolves into histrionics. Powell and Smith each claim the other killed Campbell, argue with the court over their representation, and thus drag out their trial and subsequent appeals for years. At one point, Powell even represents himself. Meanwhile, Hettinger feels the scorn of his fellow officers over the fact that he turned his gun over. Unable to deal with the guilt of living when Campbell died, he begins acting out in strange ways that cause him even more grief. "The Onion Field" follows both of these stories as the years melt away, as the specifics of the crime dissolve into endless hearings and heartrending grief. Becker and Wambaugh made a devastatingly powerful film, and one that holds up with repeated viewings.
I have no complaints with the film. None. Not a scrap of celluloid goes to waste here. The only problem I have with reviewing "The Onion Field" is picking out my favorite scenes. I liked the banter between Campbell and Hettinger at the beginning of the film. I liked the complex portrayals of Powell and Smith. I liked the depiction of the heinous crime. I liked everything that followed. I would be remiss, however, if I didn't focus in on several amazing scenes, the most amazing of which involves John Savage's character. An excellent actor too often relegated to b-movie schlock, his performance here is worthy of an Oscar. You can FEEL his guilt like it's a palpable force. The scene where he considers taking his own life simply blew me away. How he hits rock bottom and then comes to live with his guilt is both believable and marvelously rendered. I'd also like to say a few words about James Woods. He's a favorite actor of mine, and this movie only confirmed my opinions about him. He depicts Powell's over the top character without making it hammy--an ability he still summons at will today. The part where he puts his mother on the witness stand and proceeds to question her should be shown at acting schools across the country. It's that good.
The DVD version of "The Onion Field" contains two significant supplements. The first is a commentary track from director Harold Becker, the second a short featurette containing interviews with Ted Danson, John Savage, Joseph Wambaugh, James Woods. Both supplements add significant details to the film, so you should definitely give both of them a spin after watching the movie. At this point, let me give you a final reason why you should pick up "The Onion Field". In a time when Hollywood essentially made movies that gave cops the middle finger, this movie shows us in detail the agony a police officer goes through after a tragic, on the job incident. We often hear the criminal's side of the story (far too often, in my opinion) and maybe some stuff about the victim's family, but we never see what happens to the law enforcement officers. There's one more reason you should watch the movie. Now get out there and see it!"