Joseph Wambaugh was a cop with the LAPD before becoming a best-selling author. For years, he wrote thrillers, while maintaining the day job.

In 1977, Robert Aldrich made a movie from Wambaugh's The Choirboys, which the author and critics hated. After this experience, he was determined not to lose control of another film project and so when his hugely popular novel The Onion Field, based on a real life case, was being prepared for the big screen, he not only wrote the script, but put up the bulk of the money.

He wanted to tell it how it was, without Hollywood additives, and the result is a thoroughly professional piece of work that suffers in comparison to 21st-century cop movie techniques - the pace is slower, sympathy for the LAPD has a higher profile and the murder remains ambiguous (who fired four shots into the dying policeman's body?).

It follows the impetuous behavior of a small time crook, Gregory Powell (James Woods), in March 1963, when he befriends a half-caste ex-con Jimmy Smith (Franklyn Seales), whom he plans on grooming as gang fodder. Simultaneously, detective Karl Hettinger (John Savage) is becoming acquainted with his new partner, a pagpipe playing Scots-American, Ian Campbell (Ted Danson)

Certain facts emerge - Powell has psychopathic tendencies; Smith is easily led; Hettinger and Campbell are decent family men. When the cops stop check Powell and Smith on their way to an unspecified robbery, Powell pulls a gun on Campbell and forces Hettinger to hand over his weapon. He and Smith drive the kidnapped police officers to an onion field outside Los Angeles where Powell shoots Campbell in the face and Hettinger escapes.

The remainder of this tragic tale concerns Powell's clever manipulation of the law from his cell and Hettinger's mental breakdown, leading to resignation from the force and starting his own business as a market gardener.

Although Savage has top billing, it is Woods who dominates with the first of his memorable nutcase killer roles. Seales gives excellent support as the whinging victim of his own weakness.

Wambaugh seeks after truth and in so doing deflates the dramatic impact, as real life does not employ an editor to slice facts into exciting shapes.

Full marks for trying, nevertheless.

Reviewed on: 09 Sep 2003
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The Onion Field packshot
Retelling of an infamous cop killing case in Los Angeles, 1963.
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Director: Harold Becker

Writer: Joseph Wambaugh, based on the novel by Joseph Wambaugh

Starring: John Savage, James Woods, Franklyn Seales, Ted Danson, Priscilla Pointer, Ronny Cox, David Huffman, Christopher Lloyd

Year: 1979

Runtime: 121 minutes

Country: US


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