The Onion Field, 35 Years Later

There was a time in the seventies when Joseph Wambaugh was just about the top crime writer in the nation.  In the years before John Grisham and James Patterson came to prominence, Wambaugh novels got multiple adaptations into film but, unlike Grisham and Patterson, they weren’t very successful at the box office although they were very good on the whole and one of them, The Onion Field, scored big both with audiences and critics and launched the career of James Woods.  I hadn’t seen it since 1979 and was surprised upon a second viewing how much better it was than I remembered.

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The novel falls into the category of true crime and covers the story of the murder of a police officer in Bakersfield, California, in 1963, with great precision and detail.  Reading the actual facts of the case and comparing them with the book or movie and one finds there’s little to no meddling with the chain of events as they really happened, until the second half of the movie where personal motivations, fears and beliefs are dramatized to give an emotional understanding to the events as they happened.  The movie divides into two parts and neither suffers in comparison to the other.

PLOT SPOILERS BEGIN

In the first part of the film, we follow Detective Karl Hettinger (John Savage) as he becomes the new partner of Detective Ian Campbell (Ted Danson).  Campbell plays the bagpipes and practices in the basement of the station among the empty jail cells.  He went to medical school but couldn’t cut it and dropped out.  Hettinger sympathizes.  He went to college only to drop out as well.  Now they’re detectives, working the calm, uneventful streets of suburban California in 1963.  Hettinger waxes philosophical on their first night out, wondering if they might day turn the corner and meet up with something they wish they hadn’t.

Running parallel to their story, we meet Jimmy “Youngblood” Smith (Franklyn Seales), fresh out of jail on petty theft charges and immediately recruited by creepy Gregory Ulas Powell (James Woods) to be his partner on a string of liquor and convenience store robberies in the area.  Jimmy is immediately threatened by Powell and his strange behaviors and also afraid of his trigger temper, on display when Gregory pulls a gun on a “friend” he thinks stole some money from him.  Powell gets the idea to drive out to Vegas then back to Bakersfield for a plan to do something that no one is quite aware of.  Powell even brings along his pregnant wife though the goal of the trip, to make it to San Francisco, is never achieved and never quite understood by anyone, including, it seems, Powell.  His odd plans, frightening temper and disorganization send Jimmy running but before he can get away, Powell stops him and tells him it’s time to go to Bakersfield.  That’s when Detectives Campbell and Hettinger stop the two, due to a broken tail light on Powell’s car.

Once stopped, Powell exits the car and draws his gun on Campbell, who, in turn, tells Hettinger to give his gun up to Smith.  The two do so and are taken hostage and driven out to an isolated onion field where Powell, without warning, shoots Campbell in the face.  As Campbell falls to the ground, Hettinger takes off running.  In what will later be disputed in trial, someone then shoots four more shots into Campbell on the ground.  The shot is framed from a distance, as we watch Hettinger run and Powell and Smith are so close together, it’s impossible to tell which is firing into Campbell.  Later, Powell says it was Smith while Smith says it was Powell.  Given Powell’s psychotic tendencies, it seems logical to assume it is him.  Besides, Powell, when arrested, has no reaction except wanting to pin as much on Smith as he can whereas Smith is hysterical and keeps repeating he’s just a thief, not a killer.

The movie then breaks off into its second half, as we watch the endless trials, lawyerly tactics, and Detective Hettinger dealing with the psychological crisis of guilt that has the whole station blaming him for the events of the night.  They even want him to talk to the rest of the squad so that newer policemen won’t make the same mistakes.  It’s too much to bear and he begins acting out, eventually shoplifting and getting caught, perhaps intentionally, which forces his resignation.  From there, it sinks deeper for Hettinger and for Powell and Smith until the events of 1963 are so far behind them, they just kind of move on, not because anything changed but because enough time finally got between them and the events of that night.  The movie ends in 1979, the year it was made and released.

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PLOT SPOILERS END

Director Harold Becker didn’t have the most distinguished career but he did some good movies with moderate success, including Taps, Vision Quest, and Sea of Love.  The Onion Field still stands as his best.  At crucial moments, like the shooting of Detective Campbell on the ground in the field, he pulls the camera back and puts the two actors so close together with the bullets coming from between them that it’s impossible to know what happened.  He’s keeping it murky, just as it was in life, through inventive camera work and editing.  But what he really does well is pull back emotionally from scenes that might go too far in the hands of someone else.  For instance, when John Savage takes the stand during one of the many trials, and the lawyers discuss his mental state, the camera doesn’t follow Savage as he leaves the stand.  We’ve seen his anguish throughout and Becker knows that when multiple scenes of anguish from one character are used, best to keep them short so the cumulative effect isn’t one of wearing the audience down.  When the verdict is passed in the first trial, Savage gets up and leaves the courtroom.  Becker’s camera records this but does nothing else.  Nothing else is needed.  And in the final shot of the movie, where a modern director might have held the camera on the face of Campbell’s mother as she wells up inside, and allowed loud goopy music to soar underneath the scene, Becker show it for only a brief moment, then cuts to black.  It’s a perfect ending.

The acting throughout is excellent from all concerned.  John Savage uses his distant gaze to great advantage to express the emotional struggles of his character.  Although he does occasionally suffer an emotional release, he mainly uses his eyes to convey anguish, glancing away, downward, as if afraid to look anyone in the eye after what he’s done, or, at least, what he thinks he’s done.

Ted Danson reminded me that had Cheers not come along, he might have had a terrific career in the movies.  At least, as a solid supporting player.  Both here and in Body Heat two years later, he has a real presence and confidence onscreen.

Ronny Cox, David Huffman, and Franklyn Peale also do fine work.  But it is James Woods who stands out among everyone and despite the psychological suffering endured by the protagonist played by Savage, that makes up the emotional core of the story, it is Woods’ movie all the way.   Woods has an uncanny way of taking affectations of Powell and making them seem so off-kilter that, even while being funny, seem menacing.  He asks Jimmy in one scene if Jimmy notices anything different about him.  When Jimmy doesn’t, he becomes frustrated and angry.  Turns out, he put a dab of eyeliner on his ear so that people would identify the robber as someone with a mole on his ear.  It’s insane.  Who in the hell is going to notice a tiny speck on his ear and how would that override everything else about his physical description?  Jimmy seems to be thinking that very thing, judging by the look on his face as Powell reveals it.  Then Powell tells Jimmy he does a skip and jump instead of a run when he leaves a robbery so people won’t be able to tell he is moving fast.  It’s one thing to put that into the script, it’s another thing to see James Woods devise a skip/jump so foolish looking that it somehow plays as creepy instead of hilarious.  In the trial scenes, where Powell defends himself, Woods seems just as dangerous, demented and dislodged.   Woods missed out on a Best Supporting Actor nod that year because, I can only assume, no one in the Academy saw the movie. Or not enough.

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I can’t say The Onion Field doesn’t have its flaws, it does.  For one thing, the resolution of the Hettinger character is too cutesy and easy, especially after all the suffering he underwent (he and his wife engage in horseplay at a picnic, signalling to the audience that all is well).  For another, during the shooting scene, Campbell’s shot to the face is handled in slow motion, an effect that works well enough in action movies but here robs the moment of it’s unexpected impact.  Perhaps Becker was trying to emulate Robert Altman’s slow-motion choice at the end of 1973′s The Long Goodbye but if so, he missed the fact that the emotional context of that scene is in direct contrast to the horror of The Onion Field.  While we can, for lack of a better word, savor the justice doled out by Marlowe in The Long Goodbye, this scene is one of terror and should have been handled without the cheesy effect.  As if to prove the point, the subsequent normal speed shot of Campbell being shot on the ground  four times has far greater power.  So yes, it has its flaws but it stands up as an excellent true crime drama, using pathos, humor, and horror, mixed together in just the right amounts to make for an effective and, at times, riveting two hour drama.  35 years later, The Onion Field holds up.

 

 

10 Responses The Onion Field, 35 Years Later
Posted By Doug : April 13, 2014 5:46 pm

A great post, Greg-” For another, during the shooting scene, Campbell’s shot to the face is handled in slow motion” this worked for me just fine, as up until that moment, I thought of Campbell as the lead in the film, and it was shocking that he was killed. When I saw it 35 years ago it struck me as a great movie-I’d like to see it again.
I first saw James Woods in “The Way We Were”, and he makes quite an impression-what a career he has had!

Posted By Richard Brandt : April 13, 2014 8:16 pm

Never could understand why this movie was ignored at awards time, especially Woods’ career-making performance.

Posted By Andrew : April 14, 2014 12:41 pm

One thing I really appreciate about the The Onion Fields is how Campell has quirks but they just make him an interesting guy. Powell has quirks but they are signs he is a complete whack job. Hettinger and Smith are quirk free, straight ahead characters but that doesn’t mean they aren’t compelling.
No equivalency and no parallels just really good actors and a really good script.

I have always thought Ted Danson was an underrated actor. I think with his talents they could have made a Cheers into something even better than it was if Shelly long had stayed. (I think he was as good as anything on TV in the episodes with both Woody and Diane.)

Posted By gregferrara : April 14, 2014 3:10 pm

Yes, good point. Campbell and Powell, and Hettinger and Smith, have parallels. Hettinger and Smith are far more emotional and tense, for one thing, but all four characters seem distinct from one another.

Posted By Jenni : April 14, 2014 6:53 pm

I’ve been wanting to rewatch this film as I only caught it when it aired years ago on tv, and then I only caught bits of it…I do recall Woods playing a nasty character.

Posted By a clark : April 14, 2014 10:06 pm

The Onion Field was not a novel. It is non-fiction, one of the few non-fiction works that Wambaugh has written. Novels are, by definition, works of fiction.

Posted By Robby : April 14, 2014 10:24 pm

This film was completely off my radar until I saw it on Netflix sometime last year and watched it on a whim. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the film – I wasn’t expecting much, but James Woods is great! Thanks for more background and analysis on this film.

Posted By swac44 : April 15, 2014 1:08 pm

Like Jenni, I also caught this on TV, in the edited-for-network-broadcast version, complete with commercials, and even in this truncated form, images from the film have stayed with me years later. Definitely a film worthy of reappraisal!

As for Danson, lately I’ve been catching up with him on the HBO comedy Bored to Death where he does some fine character work as an aging magazine editor whose protege, Jason Schwartzman fights writer’s block by (ineptly) taking on detective cases. Highly recommended! Wish it had gone longer than three seasons.

Posted By gregferrara : April 15, 2014 7:38 pm

The Onion Field was not a novel. It is non-fiction, one of the few non-fiction works that Wambaugh has written. Novels are, by definition, works of fiction.

I state in the piece that it is a “true crime” novel. And if you’ve read it, you know it’s a novel, based on actual events. It is not a non-fiction documentary style book. From the book itself, here is a sample passage, focused on Detective Campbell’s mother:

********

Chrissie Campbell sat outside the porch of the apartment, waiting for Ian and enjoying the evening. In the distance someone was playing the radio loudly and from time to time she would catch bits of music, and later the laughter when the debris inevitably fell from the closet of Fibber McGhee and Molly. Then the station was changed and the dialer stopped for a moment on a program of classical music and she tried to identify the piece being played by the violinist. She was reminded of her husband, Bill Campbell, the tall, curly haired doctor who also played violin and was now dead five years. She sighed and wished for him. It was easy to wish and remember on nights like this, bright and balmy, when something like Indian summer comes to Southern California.

********

As you can see, it’s not a documentary account, it’s a novel, using real people and real events as its foundation. Since the writer cannot know the thoughts and feelings of the characters in real life, he has fictionalized actual events. In other words, a true crime novel.

Posted By kingrat : April 16, 2014 5:50 pm

Greg, I’m delighted to hear your praise one of my favorite films of the 1970s. This is almost exactly what I thought of the film when it first came out. I can only echo the praise of James Woods and Ted Danson. Too bad Franklyn Seales didn’t have a bigger career. Priscilla Pointer is also quite good.

John Savage, a good actor, isn’t quite comfortable playing a star role. He’s really a supporting actor who doesn’t naturally command the screen the way that James Woods, for instance, does. Too bad that John Savage didn’t have a bigger career in supporting roles.

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