Directed by: Harold Becker.
Written by: Joseph Wambaugh based on his book.
Starring: John Savage (Det. Karl Francis Hettinger), James Woods (Gregory Ulas Powell), Franklyn Seales (Jimmy Lee 'Youngblood' Smith), Ted Danson (Det. Ian James Campbell), Ronny Cox (Det. Sgt. Pierce R. Brooks), David Huffman (Dist. Atty. Phil Halpin), Christopher Lloyd (Jailhouse lawyer), Dianne Hull (Helen Hettinger).
The first hour of The Onion Field deserves comparison to Richard Brooks’ 1967 film version of In Cold Blood. Both films follows a pair of criminals, who don’t know each other that well, who end up tied together for life because of a stupid, senseless killing. In The Onion Field, the criminals are Gregory Powell (James Woods) and Jimmy Smith (Franklyn Seales), who meet each other shortly after Smith has been released from jail. Powell sees Smith as an upgrade over his current partner in crime – and Smith just needs to some money. The pair are riding around one night, when they are pulled over by two police officers – Karl Hetinger (John Savage) and James Campbell (Ted Danson). The criminals get the upper hand, and drive the pair of cops to the title Onion Field, where they kill Campbell, and attempt to kill Hettinger – who gets away. They are hardly master criminals, and get caught fairly soon – turning on each other as they are interrogated.
All of this happens in the films first, and better, half. This was the performance that made Woods a star – and it’s easy to see why. He had already perfected his thin, grinning psycho routine in the film – his Powell a chilling and unpredictable character, who believes he is smarter than everyone else, even though in reality he doesn’t know anywhere near as much as he thinks. He’s almost like both In Cold Blood killers rolled into the one – he talks a big game, like Hickock, but like Smith, he actually follows through on the violence. He’s the driving force of the action in the first half, with Seales’ Smith just along for the ride. Smith sees through Powell – and is hardly loyal to him (he doesn’t even think before he sleeps with Powell’s girlfriend), but at the same time, with Powell, he can make money – and no one else is offering. As for Hettinger and Campbell, the cops, they are more thinly sketched in this half – they are fairly new partners, as Hettinger has just transferred to this unit. They are friendly however, and that bond is starting to stick. When they pull over Powell and Smith, they don’t know what they’re getting themselves in for. They make mistakes to be sure – but every one of them is understandable in the moment they make them.
The first hour of The Onion Field has a tightness the rest of the film lacks – which is understandable. The first hour all takes place over about the course of a week or so, as the two sets of partners get to know each other, and embark on the collision course that will bring them together finally in that Onion Field. The second hour takes place over the course of years, and follows what happens next. Hettinger is haunted by that night, and also by the fact that he has to keep talking about it – with many on the force thinking he messed up tragically. He falls into a deep depression, messes up his career, and almost his marriage and entire life. On the flip side, Powell and Smith become experts at playing the system – at appeals, and appeals on appeals, and how to perhaps win their freedom (they have mixed success). This further traumatizes Hettinger, who has to continually relive that night. It also adds to the confusion of the movie, because there are so many courtroom scenes, with so many different lawyers, that it’s hard to keep track of whose coming and going.
The film is based on the book by Joseph Wambaugh – who also wrote the screenplay. Wambaugh former cop himself, who knew some of the players involved before he became a bestselling author. He had some clout at that time, and became one of the film’s producers, raising money himself to get the film made (this may well be why the cast is mostly newcomers). The director is Harold Becker – a journeyman with an uneven filmography, of which this his best work is probably (others may prefer 1989’s Sea of Love with Al Pacino). He is at his best in the first hour – travelling in the dark cars with the partners, and staging the violence of that night in The Onion Field, and in the great interrogation scenes, where Ronny Cox plays the detective who breaks both suspects done. His direction suffers a little in the second half – as he’s stuck in courtroom scene after courtroom scene, or else the domestic drama that Savage struggles to breathe life into.
Still, The Onion Field is a fine crime drama – a great one in the first half, a decent one after that – and really does deserve to be remembered better than it is. This is an example of a film that isn’t a masterpiece, but is good enough that it should be remembered, but because it wasn’t directed by an auteur, is pretty much forgotten. If for no other reason than to see one of the best performance of James Woods’ career (before he became a real life caricature of himself) – The Onion Field deserves an audience.