The Onion Field (1979)


Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB

USA, 1979. . Screenplay by , based on his book. Cinematography by . Produced by . Music by . Production Design by . Costume Design by . Film Editing by .

The events of one night in Los Angeles in 1963 spin out into years of trauma for the victim of a crime and legal battles for its perpetrators in this fascinating adaptation of Joseph Wambaugh’s book. Police officers and are introduced to each other as new partners and begin working together, while around the same time gets out of prison for robbery and falls quickly back into his old ways when he teams up with a mentally unbalanced . While driving to their next job, the two thieves are stopped for a broken taillight by the two officers and quickly get the best of them, turning their guns on the lawmen and taking them for a drive out of town. Savage manages to escape the horrors of the evening, but getting back to safety only makes the horror grow in scale: the LAPD’s reaction is to tell their forces that they need to be tougher or else deserve their fate, while Woods and Seales follow their trial and death sentence with years of exploiting every legal angle to delay their fates. Savage, meanwhile, suffers mental trauma and survivor guilt to the point that his career is destroyed and home life severely threatened. Director Harold Becker ably keeps things on track despite the fact that the film very boldly switches genre and rhythm throughout its lengthy process, from moodily photographed crime thriller to the bright lights of a courtroom drama and then a sensitive psychological investigation. The dynamite performances ably assist in maintaining the film’s integrity, particularly Woods having a major breakout as a charismatic criminal who has enough rascally self-confidence to almost be admirable.

Golden Globe Award Nomination: Best Actor-Drama (James Woods)

Toronto International Film Festival: 1979

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