Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
With The Blue Knight and The New Centurions, Joseph Wambaugh singlehandedly started a
renaissance of serious Police movies and televison shows, but his best effort was this
honest docudrama about a real, tragic crime, before, during and after. Although the best lesson
we learn from The Onion Field is to stay away from a court of law, any court of law, we
also gain a heightened respect for police officers and the impossible responsibility they carry.
This is one of the best films about criminals and policemen ever made.
Gregory Powell, a megalomanic robber (James Woods) takes on a partner, petty
thief Jimmy Smith (Franklyn Seales). One night in Hollywood, they're pulled over by policemen
Karl Hettinger (John Savage) and Ian Campbell (Ted Danson). With a gun at Campbell's back,
Gregory and Jimmy force Hettinger to give up his gun ... and then they take them both for a ride.
What happens then, and the legal quagmire the case goes through, are painfully true to the facts of a
real crime that happened in the early 1960s.
It's true, it's awful, and it happened about a mile up Gower Street from the home of DVD Savant, at
a corner I pass at least 6 times a week, Gower and Carlos. With a gun at his partner's back, Karl
Hettinger gave up his own firearm, and spent the rest of his life punishing himself for what
happened afterwards. The Onion Field is a double tragedy - the cops and their families
suffer, and by representing himself and using loopholes in the law, the killer prolonged his trial
for years, using it to mock his victims and the system.
The Onion Field is a great character study. Separately, Gregory Powell and Jimmy Smith were
troublemakers, but their chemistry together, as with the killers of In Cold Blood, was like
spontaneous combustion. The manipulative and paternal Powell had to demonstrate how tough he was
to the submissive Smith ... Powell was an intelligent monster, a
sociopath just smart enough to think he could prevail over the law. His point-blank killing was
actually a big mistake - he knew about the Lindbergh Law but misinterpreted it, thinking he had
nothing to lose by killing a man he'd moved by force.
Director Harold Becker plays Wambaugh's script straight, thereby bringing out its painful injustices
in greater relief. We see the humiliation, excoriation, and breakdown of Karl Hettinger,
branded a coward by his own police peers, and left to twist in the wind, condemned by his own
emotional defenselessness. Meanwhile, the evil Gregory Powell revels in his new powers as an
Accused with Rights. It's a harrowing experience, and not the most fun one can have
watching a movie, but The Onion Field is one of those pictures unforgettable pictures that
molds attitudes and changes opinions.
The cast take up this dramatic set of characters with enthusiasm. It was James Woods' breakout
picture after a host of bit parts
and television roles, and he makes Gregory Powell one of the more chilling villains of all time.
Franklyn Seales is submissive and weak, and Ted Danson suitably innocent. The toughest part is Karl,
however, and John Savage does great work showing a fine man broken apart piece by piece.
Perhaps the best compliment to The Onion Field is the fact that everyone concerned with the
real criminal case, watching this movie version, would probably be pleased with its tone and attention
to the facts - criminals and victims
The Onion Field almost looks too good on DVD - the sharp, detailed anamorphic image is a
big improvement over the cable television version most of us saw originally. MGM's Greg Carson has
put together a docu extra that interviews the director, writer, producer, and three of the stars, 23
years later. All have thoughts to share about the show, which is still a top title in their
filmographies. The docu is full of spoilers, so shouldn't be seen first, but includes background
information about the real crime that is very welcome. A trailer rounds out the package.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Onion Field rates:
Supplements: Docu, Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 13, 2002
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson