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,Onion Field, The,The Onion Field

The Onion Field

Bringing to his writing an authenticity gleaned from on-the-job experience with the Los Angeles Police Department, Joseph Wambaugh put the movies-about-cops-by-cops sub-genre into orbit in the 1970s with The New Centurions (1972), The Blue Knight (1973, TV), The Choirboys (1977) and The Onion Field (1979). The last may have suffered commercially from too much authenticity. Subverting the usual Hollywood heroics in which tough supercops stoically nail the bad guys, The Onion Field is mostly about the cops getting nailed -- one by a psychopath with a gun, the other by post-traumatic stress syndrome compounded by survivor's guilt.

Outraged at the divergences between his novel and the movie version of The Choirboys, Wambaugh made sure he had control of The Onion Field. It extended even to using the same cars in the chase during the fateful episode that comprised this true crime story. It begins in 1963 with Ted Danson's veteran, on patrol with John Savage's newbie, noticing a car with two men making an illegal U-turn near a Hollywood Freeway ramp. When they pull the car over, James Woods' felon graduates from liquor store holdups to kidnapping and murder. Pulling a concealed gun, he takes Danson's cop hostage, then orders his henchman, Franklyn Seales' just-released small-timer, to take the gun Danson has ordered Savage to lower.

The two felons – in real life Gregory Powell (Woods) and Jimmy Lee Smith (Seales) – drive the cops to a dirt road on the outskirts of Bakersfield. Lulling the cops by telling them he plans to abandon them miles from nowhere, giving the criminals a head start on a getaway, he stops instead at the edge of an onion field, and shoots Danson's cop (in real life Ian James Campbell) dead. When Smith freaks out, Savage's cop (real name Karl Hettinger) flees into the night and escapes. Powell changed his mind, he says, fearing that the Lindbergh law meant a death penalty for the kidnapping. He and Smith part company, but both are captured shortly thereafter. And yes, the authenticity upon which Wambaugh insisted includes using the actual onion field.

The crime, including the captures of Powell and Smith, occupies the first third of The Onion Field. The rest deals with the agonizing, debilitating, ironic, and Wambaugh's unmistakably outrage-fueled aftermath. Wisely, it takes the time to introduce us to the Scottish-American cop, who practices the bagpipes in an empty cellblock at police headquarters because the neighbors can't bear the sound of his chosen instrument. In his first film role, Danson musters more than a useful gravitas and capacity for introspection. He projects as well a seriousness and a world view that we can believe includes speculation on his own demise. Cheers would come later. When he falls here, we feel not merely a cipher falling over, but a human being vacating life.

Similarly, we're convinced that the largely self-generated torment ripping apart Savage's cop wouldn't have been so great if he weren't such a decent, well-motivated guy with a conscience in overdrive, especially after his LAPD superiors tell him he should never have given up his gun, never mind that his partner ordered him to in the mistaken belief that it would keep them alive. In real life, Hettinger went downhill, being forced to resign after several shoplifting episodes that later were clearly recognized as cries for punishment and help. The film softens the bumpiness of the road he travels before he finds peace of a sort as a gardener, landscaper and truck farmer with an angelically supportive wife (Dianne Hull). Even more heart-stopping than the scene in which he flees the killer is a later one where he's home, minding the kids while his wife is at work. In frustration, he throws a pulled punch at his infant daughter, then, ashamed, sticks the barrel of his gun in his mouth, ready to pull the trigger.

Director Harold Becker – who was to direct Wambaugh's next film, The Black Marble (1980) as well -- gets outstanding performances from all his young leads – Danson in his debut, Savage as the cop projecting a vulnerability all but unknown in the genre at the time, Seales as the small-time felon projecting a vulnerability that makes his character increasingly sympathetic. Woods, however, is first among equals here, making his mark in the film's loose-cannon role, a sort of down-market Hannibal Lecter -- a sociopathic, egomaniacal control freak skilled in the manipulative arts, instinctively sensing in Seales' small-time thief an easily molded disciple. Turning on its ear the dictum that a man who defends himself in court has a fool for a client, Powell did remarkably well for himself in court, generating years' worth of legal ping-pong and roadblocks that have stalled his execution to this day. The real Hettinger died in 1994, Smith in 2007. Powell, the only one of the four principals still alive, has turned into quite the jailhouse lawyer. His 11th request for parole was denied in January, 2010.

Interestingly, Wambaugh has been quoted as telling Truman Capote that Capote's In Cold Blood was one of Wambaugh's stylistic influences in delineating a senseless murder – as if murder ever inhabited the realm of rationality! But the realism that pervades even what these days seems a stylized and even slightly dated cop film goes beyond its automatic rightness in rendering the details of police procedure. It has to do with the viewpoint of working cops becoming part of the film's texture as well. One of the things that gives The Onion Field its force, and through which Wambaugh continues to inform today's multitude of police dramas in film and on TV, is his moral outrage, doubtless born of his days as a police officer reflecting on what often is the gap between justice and the legal system, and in this case, its toxic aftermath, still going strong after more than four decades.

In 1963 while making a routine traffic stop, two LAPD officers are held up at gunpoint and taken to a deserted onion field, where one of the officers is executed and the other escapes. The murderers are soon arrested, but due to their manipulation of the legal system, manage to postpone prosecution for years.

Producer: Walter Coblenz
Director: Harold Becker
Screenplay: Joseph Wambaugh (screenplay); Joseph Wambaugh (book); Eric Roth (uncredited)
Cinematography: Charles Rosher, Jr.
Music: Eumir Deodato
Film Editing: John W. Wheeler
Cast: John Savage (Det. Karl Francis Hettinger), James Woods (Gregory Ulas Powell), Franklyn Seales (Jimmy Lee 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), Priscilla Pointer (Chrissie Campbell).

by Jay Carr



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