Former L.A. cop Joseph Wambaugh forged a new career writing fiction and nonfiction books inspired by his time in uniform, and the moment his debut novel was published in 1971, he started getting attention from Hollywood. Yet by the end of the decade, he was reportedly sick of the liberties filmmakers took in their adaptations of his work—so for The Onion Field, Wambaugh insisted on writing the script and working closely with the director. The result was a highly intelligent look at the unique emotional challenges of police life, shown through the prism of how one detective is scarred by his involvement in a killing.
As directed by Harold Becker, whose best movies are filled with actual and metaphorical shadows, The Onion Field paints a bleak picture of modern law-enforcement: The policemen in this story are easy targets, while criminals armor themselves with the legal system. Based on a real case, the narrative takes place in the early ’60s, when newly minted Detective Karl Hettinger (John Savage) is assigned to work with slightly older partner Ian Campbell (Ted Danson). Hettinger is an oversensitive ex-Marine, and Campbell is a conflicted soul who plays bagpipes for relaxation and contemplates whether he should quit police work.
Meanwhile, simple-minded thief Jimmy Smith (Franklyn Seales) has the bad luck to hook up with intense career criminal Greg Powell (James Woods) shortly after Smith’s release from prison. Powell’s a live wire who’s too smart for his own good, since his hodgepodge education leads him to misunderstand as many things as he comprehends. These duos from opposite sides of the law intersect when the criminals take the police officers captive. Soon, Campbell is dead in a roadside ditch near an onion field in the rural community of Bakersfield. Ettinger escapes captivity, though his real trauma has just begun. Haunted by guilt over what he might have done differently, Ettinger spirals into depression and petty crime, eventually losing his badge. He’s also forced to relive his worst moments again and again because after Powell and Smith are arrested, the hoodlums mount endless legal challenges.
Wambaugh’s close attention to the psychological after-effects of crime ensures that every frame of The Onion Field is compelling, even though his handling of the story’s female characters is weak. Becker’s meticulous images accentuate Wambaugh’s dramaturgy, since Becker uses long lenses to isolate figures and, at other times, deep shadows to smother them.
Woods’ performance dominates, not only because he’s got the showy role of a psychotic chatterbox, but also because Woods adds textures of deviousness, humor, intelligence, perversion, and self-loathing. (He received his first Golden Globe nomination for The Onion Field.) Savage is touchingly vulnerable, though he sometimes drifts into affected, Method-style twitchiness, and Seales displays wide-open emotion as a loser who stumbles into a situation he can’t handle. Danson is terrific in one of his earliest roles, putting across something memorably humane in just a handful of scenes.
The Onion Field: GROOVY