Thursday, February 8, 2018


Harold Becker's The Onion Field (1979) was made in the final year of the last great decade for American movies, but it's never mentioned alongside other films of the era. Perhaps there were so many excellent titles from the era that a movie like this one, which didn't feature a De Niro or a Pacino or a Nicholson, gets overlooked. But none of those actors could've done any better than James Woods does here as Greg Powell, an ex-con who imagines himself a kind of master criminal, when he's really just a cheap hood who robs grocery stores. The Onion Field is about many characters, each with a story worth telling, but Powell is the the black hole into which they are all sucked, a man too nasty, perhaps, for audiences then and now.

Still, what a challenging and terrifying movie this is. And how well it has survived. True, there's a short bit at the beginning, of suburban lawns and sprinklers with a cheesy musical score, and there's a sentimental bit at the end. But Becker, over 50 when he directed this, came of age during the 1940s, when such things were expected, which makes The Onion Field all the more of an achievement. Remove the sappy Hallmark bookends, and you have a hell of a strong picture.

Everybody knows Woods as an edgy character actor. He was as close as the MTV generation came to its own Richard Widmark, and as Powell he's as sinister as Widmark's Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death (1947). He's thrilled when his pregnant girlfriend calls him "Bun," as in "Honey bun," and he likes to brag that he's "a virtuoso" when it comes to pleasuring women.  Still, he has an ex-con's warped sexuality, and upon meeting new males he is very free with his hands.

Woods daring performance wasn't unnoticed. He received a Golden Globe nomination, as well as nominations from The New York Film Critics Circle and The National Society of Film Critics (his only win came from The Kansas City Film Critics Circle), but none of these mild accolades suggest how utterly he dominated the screen as Powell, from the first moment we see his  skeletal face, gold teeth, and wild eyes.

But is he just another trigger happy gunman who murders a cop and then implicates his  partner in the shooting? Not hardly, because Powell is one of the more multi-layered creeps one will ever see in a movie. Childish, self-serving, egomaniacal, still nursing wounds from his childhood, he stands out in a movie full of sharply drawn characters. Nearly 40 years later he's still disturbing.

The Onion Field was based on a true story. Powell and his partner, Jimmy "Youngblood" Smith (Franklyn Seales) were a couple of small-time robbers who were pulled aside one night by two young police officers, Karl Hettinger and Ian Campbell (John Savage and Ted Danson). Powell outmaneuvered the two cops and had Campbell drive them to a nearby onion field in Bakersfield, California. Believing that kidnapping carried the same penalty as murder, Powell shoots Campbell in the mouth and then goes after Hettinger. We hear more shots fired, but the shooter's identity isn't clear in the chaos.

Hettinger manages to escape; Campbell ends up dead in a ditch. And soon the ramifications of this ghastly midnight crime take a toll on all involved. Hettinger is destroyed by guilt, which results in a sort of slow-motion mental breakdown; Smith is outraged that Powell has said he fired bullets into Campbell, but ends up back in prison; and Powell finds himself back in the slammer, too, where he resumes his habit of feeling men up. He also becomes a rather haughty jailhouse lawyer. 

The movie is a no-frills cop drama, with a lot of court scenes, and interrogation scenes where the walls at the station house look like the lungs of a longtime smoker. There are dank motels and vintage cars - allegedly the actual vehicles used by Powell and Smith - and most of the movie has the atmosphere of a dirty carpet. Cinematographer Charles Rosher Jr cut his teeth on TV shows like Mannix and  Mission: Impossible, but also worked alongside Robert Atman and Michael Ritchie in the years just before The Onion Field. The story is set in 1963, but I cannot recall any music in the film, except for some bagpipes. A director in 2018 would soak the thing in music by Bobby Vinton and Chet Baker, trying hard for period cool. I think it's cooler the way it is: unadorned, plain as a brass shell casing.

The screenplay and the book it is based on were written by Joseph Wambaugh, a former policeman who turned to crime writing in the early '70s. Wambaugh also helped finance the feature, assuring that he'd have control and input into the final product. He was serious about details, inviting officers who were on duty the night of the murder to "to come around and take a look at how we were depicting it." Though the film suggests Jimmy Smith was innocent of shooting Campbell,  Wambaugh was never certain. Many of Wambaugh's books became the basis for movies, including The Choirboys, The New Centurians, and The Black Marble. In The Onion Field, he probably thought he'd tapped into something akin to Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. In Powell, he had a character far uglier than Capote's killers.

James Woods is 71 now.  Though he does a lot of voice work for cartoons, the last thing I remember seeing him in was  a lousy remake of Straw Dogs (2011, and not surprisingly, he was the best thing in it). In the 1980s, though, he turned in a series of "hypnotically watchable" performances, as Roger Ebert described them, in films like Videodrome (1980)  Split Image (1982 ), Against All Odds  (1984), Salvador (1986)  Best Seller (1987) Cop (1988),  and True Believer (1989). He embodied some intangible character of the age, the hyper-intelligent iconoclast swimming against the tide of Reagan's America. Without Woods the 1980s would've been nothing but Tom Cruise and Steve Guttenberg. 

As Powell, Woods is a sort of grinning corpse, but one who has studied Dale Carnegie. Rail-thin, unpredictable, convinced of his own genius, he is one of cinema's great villains. As Smith, Seales is a nervous whelp of a man, just as jittery as you'd expect someone to be after too much time with Powell. John Savage, a popular actor on the rise in 1979, is convincing as Hettinger, a cop who loses face. At one point he's having such a meltdown that he slaps his infant daughter, a scene that caused one audience, according to John Simon of the New Republic, to "let out a gasp of human horror." Danson, years away from his role on Cheers, is every bit the clean-cut young policeman, trying to remain calm as Powell pokes a gun into his ribs. Danson is gone after the first half hour, but the impression he leaves is remarkable.

Becker would go on to direct several fine films, many in the crime genre, including Sea of Love (1989). His movies are like sledgehammers, hard and heavy. He'd direct Woods again in The Boost (1988), an underrated movie where a tax investor ruins his life with cocaine. Without drawing much attention to himself, Becker was one of our better directors. If his only film had been The Onion Field, he'd be well worth praising. He turns 90 this year, and probably won't make more movies. But to use one of Powell's words, he was a virtuoso.

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