[box cover]

The Onion Field

It's unfortunate that James Woods largely has built his acting career on scofflaws, social deviants, and psychotics. Not that he isn't good at it — he's great, actually, when it comes to being smart, creepy, and slightly unhinged, from the hitman in Best Seller (1987) to the coked-out pimp in Casino (1996). Woods has tackled a wider variety of roles over the years, but it's these turns that tend to stick in the mind, thanks in part to his first defining performance as ruthless murderer Gregory Powell in The Onion Field (1979). Directed by Harold Becker and based on true events, the film tells the story of two honest cops and two small-time crooks. John Savage stars as Karl Hettinger, an LAPD plainclothes officer working the felony beat with Ian Campbell (Ted Danson). Both men wound up on the force after dropping out of college (Hettinger studied agriculture, Campbell was pre-med), and while neither loves the job, they have accepted it as a career. Meanwhile, two-bit L.A. hood Gregory Powell (Woods) has been out of prison for less than a year, and since then he's put together a string of robberies. But he needs a new partner, and immediately recruits timid Jimmy "Youngblood" Smith, who's left Folsom only a week earlier. After getting a new car and handguns in Las Vegas, Powell plans to score enough cash to relocate to San Francisco, but on the night of March 9, 1963, the suspicious duo are pulled over by Hettinger and Campbell. However, Powell gets the jump on them and manages to disarm both cops before forcing them to drive to an onion field outside of Bakersfield. Campbell is shot to death, Hettinger miraculously escapes, and the perpetrators are arrested, leading to years of legal appeals that eventually take a psychological toll on Hettinger, who cannot free himself from the guilt he feels over his dead partner. Taken from Joseph Wambaugh's novel, the author adapted the screenplay for The Onion Field himself, and in order to retain complete control over the film he arranged all of the financing (with Avco/Embassy as the distributor). Harold Becker was brought on to direct as well, but where Wambaugh probably was most fortunate was in his young cast. John Savage's star was on the rise at the time, and he brings a great deal of soft-spoken humanity to his tortured part as the cop who is condemned to survive the assassination. The Onion Field was Ted Danson's first screen appearance in any film, and he does a lot with his crucial part, ensuring that we know and care enough about Campbell to feel his absence in the second half of the film. As mixed-raced Jimmy Smith, Franklyn Seales also got his first major film role, which would remain his most substantial before his early death in 1987. But above all, it's impossible to think of The Onion Field without James Woods, who understands that psychos are always more interesting when they are a bit peculiar, and very smart. As Powell, Woods portrays the criminal's cleverness and enormous megalomania, particularly when he becomes an efficient jailhouse lawyer acting on his own behalf and tying up the legal process for years. But Powell isn't always that smart, and the film's few humorous moments come from his criminal plotting — they way he hop/skips from a crime rather than running to attract less attention; his insistence that he and Smith dress in leather for one robbery as a disguise of sorts; and particularly a mole he paints on his ear to foil eyewitness testimony. It's a portrait of a half-smart crook who gets in over his head, but — as far too often is the case — simply becomes more formidable once incarcerated with the American legal system at his disposal. MGM's DVD release of The Onion Field features a good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with the original mono on a Dolby Digital 2.0 track. The source-print is well preserved with little collateral damage. Supplements include a commentary from director Becker, the retrospective documentary "Ring of Truth, with comments from Wambaugh, Becker, Woods, Savage, and Danson (29 min.), and the original theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
—JJB



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