The Onion Field (1979)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Guilt over partner’s death.

Los Angeles police detectives Ian Campbell (Ted Danson) and Karl Hettinger (John Savage) are on-duty driving around in an unmarked police car when they spot two men, Gregory Powell (James Woods) and Jimmy Smith (Franklyn Seales), driving suspiciously, so they pull them over. While Campbell is talking to Powell, Powell is able to pull out a gun he had hidden in his trousers forcing Campbell to drop his weapon. Hettinger is then told to give up his weapon as well, which he does, or risk seeing his partner get shot. The two cops are then taken at gunpoint to an remote onion field where in the darkness of night Campbell is shot and killed, but Hettinger escapes and manages to run 4 miles until he finds someone and gets help. While the two criminals are eventually apprehended and found guilty it is Hettinger that suffers the most from the guilt of surviving when his friend and partner didn’t and from the humiliation of being the subject of a police video detailing what not to do when stopping a vehicle, which leads him to a severe mental breakdown in both his personal and professional life.

The story is based on the actual incident that occurred on March 9, 1963 with the traffic stop happening on the corner of Carlos Avenue and Gower Street in Hollywood and the murder happening off of Interstate 5 near Bakersfield. It was written into a novel by former cop turned author Joseph Wambaugh in 1973. I remember reading it when I was 14 and finding it captivating from beginning to end. While the film stays faithful to it I still felt it wasn’t as effective and in a lot of ways not as gripping. Even though it was a long time ago I remember the part about Powell’s ‘disguise’ where the only thing he changed about his features was putting a distinctive mole on his left ear lobe, which sounded completely absurd. This is discussed in the movie, which gets a subtle eye roll from Smith his partner, but the irony is, which is talked about in the book and not the film, is that the witnesses from the robbery that Powell was in described the mole to the police and this litrerally threw the detectives off for awhile as they kept searching for a man with a distinctive mole that Powell had since removed, so as silly as it sounded, his idea had actually worked, but the movie never gives this pay-off.

The chase through the onion field is also really hurt. I remember finding this section the most captivating part of the book and finding it a truly tense and horrifying moment that seemed to go on forever and a major element of the story, but in the movie this moment gets trimmed down significantly. Years ago, when I first saw the movie on TV, I thought it was because they had edited it down due to time constraints in order to get more commercials in, but when I finally viewed the full version on DVD I found this wasn’t the case. For whatever reason the chase in the onion field lasts for only a few minutes and not done from Hettinger’s perspective, which is what made it such an intense reading and it’s a real shame as it makes the movie much less impactful then it could’ve been. It turns the whole onion field incident into a side story instead of the main event.

The performances by Woods and Seales are outstanding and the element that really gives the film its energy they also look exactly like the people they’re playing to the point it’s almost freaky. Woods is especially creepy and he literally demands your attention with each moment he’s in it. Seales though, whose career never really took off and he died at the young age of 37 from AIDS, is excellent too as he plays someone who is very timid especially when initially with Powell, but brazen at other points and the way his and Powell’s relationship evolves both through their criminal and then when behind bars is quite fascinating. The scream that he lets out when Campbell gets shot, which was not in the script and completely improvised, has a very riveting effect and the one thing about the film that I had remembered from watching it decades earlier.

Unfortunately the two leads, the people we’re supposed to be the most connected with, are quite boring. It’s not like it’s the actors faults either. Danson, this was his film debut, is not bad, but his character isn’t fleshed out enough. Other than enjoying playing the bagpipes we don’t learn much else about him and nothing he says his captivating, or interesting. The same with Savage his inner turmoil and mental breakdown really doesn’t have the intended emotional impact in fact his moments bogs the movie down and you can’t wait until they get back to the bad guys who as rotten as they are what gives the movie its liveliness. I realize that Wambaugh felt it was very important to get Hettinger’s story out there and it was the whole reason that motivated him to write the book, but I came away feeling, at least movie wise it would’ve worked better had it just focused on the two crooks and their weird ‘friendship’.

On the whole it’s still an adequate production that holds enough interest and makes some good points about an important event that shouldn’t be forgotten, but at times it also seems like an overreach. Wambuagh’s insistence that everything be as accurate as possible gives the narrative a cluttered feel particularly with all the various court proceedings with each one having a different set of attorney’s, judges, and courtrooms which becomes dizzying instead of riveting. Pairing certain elements down would’ve helped as it’s not quite a completely effective, despite the great effort, as it could’ve been and without question another incidence where the book is far better.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: September 19, 1979

Runtime: 2 Hours 6 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Harold Becker

Studio: AVCO Embassy Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray

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