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With all the trouble today around those questionable police shootings, the public is becoming even more severely divided about the behavior of cops and what they do. Back in the 1970s, the books of policeman-turned author Joseph Wambaugh took police work out of the Dragnet fantasy and dramatized it for the very dangerous profession it is. Chivalrous fantasies of chivalry dissolved when student cops in The New Centurions were told that a policeman under threat is in no way compelled to 'fight fair,' as cops once did on TV: "He uses his fists, you use your club. He pulls a knife, you use your gun." With The Blue Knight and The New Centurions, Wambaugh initiated a resurgence of serious police movies and television shows. His best effort is this thoughtful docudrama about a real, tragic crime, before, during and after the deed. The most important lesson we learn from The Onion Field is to stay away from a court of law, any court of law. But 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.
Violent sociopath and robber Gregory Powell (James Woods) takes on a partner, petty thief Jimmy Smith (Franklyn Seales). One night in Hollywood, they're pulled over by police detectives 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 own gun. Powell then takes 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 twice a week, Gower and Carlos streets. With a gun at his partner's back, Karl Hettinger surrendered his own firearm and spent the rest of his life punishing himself for what happened afterwards. The cops and their families suffer further outrages and insults. By representing himself and exploiting loopholes in the law, the killer not only prolonged his trial by years, he took advantage of it to mock his victims and the system. The story is told in painful, fascinating detail.
The Onion Field is also a great character study. Separately, Gregory Powell and Jimmy Smith were little more than lowlife thieves, but their chemistry together was like spontaneous combustion. They're often compared to the killers of In Cold Blood, low-achieving criminals that together were capable of horrible deeds. Powell was an intelligent monster, a sociopath just smart enough to think he could fool the law. He felt the need to demonstrate to the submissive Smith how tough he was. Powell's decision to commit a point-blank killing was actually a big mistake based on a false assumption. He misinterpreted the Lindbergh Law, and thought 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. One cop is a working stiff, perhaps not 100% suited to his chosen profession but a good and conscientious officer. The other is an intellectual from an established family, whose mother (fine actress Priscilla Pointer) thinks he's working below his abilities. Both men want to earn an honest living. They see themselves as social workers, not 'hammers of justice.'
Wambaugh adapted his own book for the screen. The crime is one of those horrible nightmares that didn't have to happen and can't be undone. Our policemen are lax for one moment, and total tragedy results. Wambaugh then brings out the long months of legal maneuvering and grinding departmental politics. Ronny Cox is a Hettinger's superior, a man who has no use for weakness on the force. A young Christopher Lloyd is in there too, helping Powell with his legal maneuvering. Wambaugh shows us a legal mire much more complicated than the simple gripe that, 'the law's on the side of the criminal.' Yet the sneering Powell is able to make it look that way.
Karl Hettinger is branded a coward by his peers in the police and condemned by his own emotional defenselessness. Unlike most of his colleagues, we feel Karl's guilt and humiliation, and understand his eventual breakdown. Meanwhile, the evil Gregory Powell revels in his new legal power 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 unforgettable pictures that molds attitudes and changes opinions.
The cast takes up this dramatic set of characters with enthusiasm. Franklyn Seales is properly submissive as Youngblood Smith, the crook with the weak personality. Although he's guilty as hell, we never place him in the same category as the malevolent Powell. The Onion Field was James Woods' breakout picture after a host of supporting parts and television roles, and he makes Gregory Powell one of the more chilling villains of all time. Powell is scary because of his strong personality; he always thinks he's the smartest person in the room. Locked away in jail, Powell proves sufficiently smart to nail down every loophole available to a man on trial for murder and kidnapping.
This isn't one of Ted Danson's best pre- Cheers roles, in that Ian Campbell exits the film so early, staying just long enough to be established as a nice fellow and idealistic policeman. The toughest part by far is Karl. John Savage does great work showing a fine man broken apart piece by piece. Hettinger can't take the pressure, even with a supportive wife. Savage made a career of men struggling within their limitations and placed in circumstances they just can't handle. The previous year's The Deer Hunter brought Savage to prominence. He continued to similar roles, as in the now- seldom seen Inside Moves.
Perhaps the best compliment for The Onion Field is the fact that everyone concerned with the real criminal case, criminals and victims alike, would probably be pleased with this movie version. Its attention to the facts and non-sensational tone are outstanding.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Onion Field is a good presentation of this medium-budget but high achieving feature. Kino performed its own transfer, which is adequate in all respects. The cinematography conveys the full horror of the crime at Gower and Carlos: an armed standoff takes place right on the street, but nobody witnesses it. Most Hollywood residential neighborhoods are like that - you could strangle an elephant on a street corner, and people might not look out their windows.
The main extra Ring of Truth is a long-form interview doc done in 2002 by MGM's producer Greg Carson. The film's director, writer, producer, and three of its stars all have plenty to share about the show, which is still a top title in their filmographies. The spoiler-ridden docu includes welcome background information about the real crime as well.
Director Harold Becker provides a full audio commentary. A new interview with John Savage allows the actor to gather his thoughts about the role and his approach to fragmented characters such as this one. A trailer rounds out the package; it suffers from a frame -distribution encoding issue that results in a staccato playback.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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T'was Ever Thus.