Posted in: Film Reviews

Review: The Onion Field

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Truth may be stranger than fiction, but it is almost always less interesting. The challenge facing Wambaugh in bringing his novelized “true story” to the screen was to preserve the interest and intensity that the actual events held for those who participated in them—to try to make the headline story as immediate for the viewer as for the subject. All of Wambaugh’s police bestsellers are based on fact to one extent or another; and the story goes that Wambaugh, fed up with the inadequacy of the film versions of his other books (The New Centurions, The Blue Knight, The Choirboys), decided to appoint his own producer and director, and write his own screenplay the way he wanted it done. Though the cops come off as saintly and the criminal element as irredeemable—unlike the more ambiguous characterization of the earlier Wambaugh-based films—The Onion Field is a qualified success, and probably actually is the best Wambaugh movie yet.

The script often runs to clichés, but people really do talk and act that way. It’s only when Wambaugh tries to get significant that he runs awry. One exchange of dialogue between two police partners near the beginning, for example, is obviously intended to set the viewer up for the impact of the rest of the story, and comes off sounding self-important and philosophical in an embarrassingly inappropriate way. People don’t talk that way, and it’s a lame scene because of it. Similarly, John Savage—who plays the central role of an idealistic young policeman whose life is destroyed in the aftermath of the murder of his partner, which he witnesses and survives—has some powerful moments, as in his near-suicide, one of the most affecting sequences in the film. But in the larger context of the movie he is distractingly inconsistent, aping several different styles, including Robert De Niro and James Caan. James Woods, by contrast, is consistent and terrifyingly powerful as the unpredictably psychopathic criminal Greg Powell. His performance, the film’s single most impressive achievement, combines the look of a young Robert Duvall with the voice of a Michael Murphy and the modulation of a Clint Eastwood; the impact is disorienting and unforgettably forceful. Some critics have heralded The Onion Field as an indictment of the American system of justice, in its portrayal of the endless cycle of trial and retrial of Powell and his black dupe for the cop-killing. There is an element of protest, but the emphasis of the film is not on the failure of justice, but rather the more personal effects of that failure. Wambaugh’s and Becker’s effort to achieve that personalism has led to a spotty film, but one that is never preachy and often reaches affecting intensity. In terms of the far-reaching and searingly personal effects of its central event, the film loads barrels of meaning into the comment of its young policeman hero: “This trial’s never gonna end.”

© 1980 Robert C. Cumbow

Direction: Harold Becker. Screenplay: Joseph Wambaugh, after his novel. Cinematography: Charles Rosher Jr. Production design: Brian Eatwell. Editing: John W. Wheeler. Music: Eumir Deodato. Production: Walter Coblenz.
The players: John Savage, James Woods, Franklyn Seales, Ted Danson, Ronny Cox, Dianne Hull, Priscilla Pointer, David Huffman, Christopher Lloyd.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.