The Onion Field is an upsetting, highly detailed, true-crime movie directed with class by Harold Becker (City Hall, Sea of Love) in his second big-screen effort after The Ragman’s Daughter. Released in 1979 and starring an impressive cast of up and coming talent including an incredible John Savage, a tragic Ted Danson, and a live-wire James Woods in one of his all-time skeeviest performances (and that says a lot…!), the film centers on the murder of Los Angeles police officer Ian Campbell (Danson), and how his partner Karl Hettinger (Savage) miraculously escaped but never got over the intense feelings of guilt and despair brought upon by the sudden and violent tragedy. Woods plays Gregory Powell, the unremorsefully evil shooter, with a shifty and sweaty Franklyn Seales portraying his accomplice, Jimmy Smith.
Joseph Wambaugh adapted his own book for the screen, and he painted a complicated picture of a variety of people thrown into each other’s orbit after a terrible crime and how the ramifications of the situation multiplied for everyone involved. The opening tracking shot through a tree-lined 1963 Los Angeles suburb immediately sets the tone, with Eumir Deodato’s score swelling on the soundtrack, as the initially easy going performances from Savage and Danson give way to nervous suspense the moment Woods and his goons enter the picture.
Wambaugh’s multilayered screenplay also tackles the desperate attempts by Powell and Smith to get off of death row, which they successful accomplish, and while Smith was released in 1982, I find it interesting (and sort of awesome) that, according to some rumors, Powell developed some form of cancer while in the joint, and was never given the time of day by jail doctors, in effect letting him (hopefully) painfully suffer up until the bitter, miserable end. Becker handles the murder sequence in chilling fashion, with the Bakersfield onion field location shot in striking and ominous moonlit shadows by cinematographer Charles Rosher, Jr., who provided the picture with a smooth and confident visual style.
This is tough-goings moviemaking, centering on a cold-hearted tragedy, and how some people become overwhelmingly affected by violent loss. Not easy stuff to view or to digest, but real and honest and thoroughly emotional. Savage was sensational as Hettinger, cutting to the core of what would have troubled the real life detective, as one is left with the impression that while hope is glimpsed at by the finale, it was a long road to full recovery. Ronny Cox provides memorable support. The Onion Field is available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber and the picture and audio quality are top shelf.
Review by Nick Clement