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Harold Becker
John Savage, James Woods, Franklyn Seales, Ted Danson, Ronny Cox, david Huffman, Christopher Lloyd
Joseph Wambaugh

Rated R.

Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9
English Digital Mono
English, Spanish, French

Runtime: 126 min.
Price: $19.98
Release Date: 9/17/2002

• Audio Commentary with Director Harold Becker
• “Ring of Truth” Documentary
• Theatrical Trailer


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The Onion Field (1979)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

As I think about The Onion Field, I remember the phrase “jack of all trades, master of none”. The movie attempts to tackle so many different topics that it fails to adequately cover any of them. Part crime flick, part psycho-drama, part social commentary, the film doesn’t fully explore any of these, which leaves it as a generally muddled and unsatisfying piece of work.

Based on a true story, Field examines two sets of partners. Set in 1963, we meet two cops as well as two criminals. Newly-paired Karl Hettinger (John Savage) and Ian Campbell (Ted Danson) work for the Los Angeles Police Department, while very recent ex-con Jimmy Smith (Franklyn Seales) meets hyperactive schemer Greg Powell (James Woods) through a friend. The early parts of the movie explore these burgeoning partnerships until the foursome come together one fateful night.

Jimmy and Greg get pulled over by Karl and Ian after they make an illegal U-turn. The cops quickly lose control of the situation. With Ian at gunpoint, the crooks demand that Karl turn over his gun, which he reluctantly does. Jimmy and Greg then take the officers on a ride out to a local onion field. Initially they plan to simply leave them there, but due to Greg’s interpretation of the “Little Lindbergh Law”, he thinks that their abduction will be considered to be a capital crime. As we later discover, this thought doesn’t match reality, but it affects Greg’s judgment, and he decides to kill the cops. As Jimmy freaks out, he blasts Ian, but Karl manages to escape.

Before too long, the authorities apprehend Jimmy and Greg, and the film heads toward its real focus: the aftermath. Jimmy and Greg manipulate the legal system to keep themselves from the gas chamber, while Karl’s life goes to pot due to his guilt. The movie watches as Karl continually hopes that matters will improve when the case gets settled, but it never goes away, and his degeneration intensifies.

When Field succeeds, it does so due to the acting. All of the performers offer nice work, though Woods stands out from the crowd. A virtual unknown at the time, his turn as Greg really launched his career, and deservedly so. Woods makes Greg brash and bigger than life, and he also gives him a psychotic tint that never becomes over the top. As Karl, Savage seems a little stiff at first, but he appropriately depicts the character’s slow collapse and does well with the more dramatic moments.

Unfortunately, the film’s uneven pacing and focus make it rough going much of the time. Director Harold Becker tends to telegraph the characters’ thoughts and emotions, and the movie often lacks much subtlety. He clearly enjoys the focus on the criminals, and Karl remains fairly undeveloped, at least until the flick’s third act. Even then, his degeneration receives too little attention; Savage helps make those scenes work despite the erratic detail accorded by the director.

As I noted at the start, much of the problem with Field relates to its broad focus. The movie bites off more than it can chew, which means that none of the subjects receive sufficient attention. Had the flick dealt mainly with Karl or the criminals, it might have been more satisfying, but as it attempts to pack in so many different elements, it becomes superficial.

Some parts of The Onion Field work quite well, but overall, the movie fails to engage me. It provides generally solid acting and definitely presents compelling subject matter, but it flits from topic to topic too quickly to offer much of an impact.

The DVD Grades: Picture C / Audio C / Bonus B-

The Onion Field appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The picture suffered from a mix of problems that meant it rarely looked much better than mediocre.

Sharpness seemed solid for the most part. The movie displayed no significant problems related to softness or fuzziness, as it consistently maintained a nicely crisp and detailed image. Jagged edges and moiré effects created no concerns, but I did notice some fairly prominent edge enhancement at times. As for print flaws, they seemed occasionally problematic but not too severe. I discerned moderate levels of grain and periodic bouts of speckles, but otherwise the movie appeared reasonably clean.

Due to the film stocks used at the time, many movies from the era presented fairly drab palettes, and Field fit into that mold. The production design also led to some of these issues, but most of them seemed to result from the film stock. In any case, the colors of Field seemed subdued and fairly muddy. Skin tones often took on a pinkish tint, and the hues generally looked bland and flat. Black levels appeared a little inky but they generally came across as reasonably deep and dense. Shadow detail tended to seem somewhat murky, however. Overall, The Onion Field provided a watchable but bland image.

The monaural soundtrack of The Onion Field seemed acceptable for its age but never exceeded those expectations. Speech showed modest edginess at times and generally sounded somewhat thin and tinny. Nonetheless, the lines always remained intelligible. Effects displayed similarly flat and bland tones; they seemed fairly clean but they lacked much life. Music appeared concise and tight but also failed to deliver much range; the score sounded accurate but bland. Ultimately, Field displayed a very average soundtrack.

On this release of The Onion Field, we find a few supplements. First we get an audio commentary from director Harold Becker, who offers a running, screen-specific piece. I previously listened to Becker’s track for Domestic Disturbance. As I re-read my notes on that commentary, I felt a serious sense of déjà vu, for both tracks seemed very similar.

That’s a bad thing, since both commentaries are quite dull. Occasionally, Becker offers some useful notes, especially when he relates the real-life facts behind the film. However, he too frequently just describes the action on-screen or tells us how good everyone was. Many empty spaces occur, and after a while, it seems as though Becker does little more than repeat the same thoughts; he often prefaces remarks with the word “again”, so he obviously knew he continually went over the same territory. This commentary offers a bland and generally uninformative experience.

In addition to the film’s theatrical trailer, we get a documentary called Ring of Truth. This 28-minute and 56-second piece mixes clips from the film and new interviews with director Becker, writer Joseph Wambaugh, and actors John Savage, James Woods, and Ted Danson. The program offers a lot of good information. Wambaugh provides the strongest material, as he covers the genesis of the project, some of his research, and his independent financing of the flick. Woods adds some nice comments about his work, and the others also contribute useful notes. Overall, the documentary gives us a reasonably entertaining and compelling look at the film.

While I admired The Onion Field and thought it covered a worthwhile subject, I felt the execution of the film fell flat. It tried to go over too many different topics and failed to appropriately detail and explore any of them. The DVD offered mediocre picture and sound plus a good documentary and a lifeless commentary. With a low list price of less than $20, fans of The Onion Field should feel pleased with this set, and those with a definite interest in the subject may want to give it a look. The movie didn’t impress me enough to recommend it beyond that scope, however.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3.9285 Stars Number of Votes: 28
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