Sunday, 21 June 2015

THE ONION FIELD - Review By Greg Klymkiw - 70s Cop Classic Now on Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray

The Onion Field (1979)
Dir. Harold Becker
Starring: James Woods, Franklyn Seales, John Savage, Ronny Cox,
Ted Danson, Christopher Lloyd, David Huffman, Priscilla Pointer, Dianne Hull

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Given recent media exposure to the wholesale murder of unarmed American citizens by trigger-happy policemen, it seems appropriate to take a fresh look at the flip side in Harold Becker's 1979 film adaptation of The Onion Field, a harrowing 1973 true crime book by Joseph Wambaugh, the famed cop-turned-bestselling-novelist who created an important body of work devoted to the danger and drudgery of being a cop.

Though many are under the assumption that Wambaugh's books were little more than literary canonizations of policemen, the fact of the matter is that he tried to create balanced, sympathetic portraits of all his characters and most of all he was never shy about etching warts-and-all portraits of his lawmen. This book was no different, save for one detail. The Onion Field was not fiction and Wambaugh was actually familiar with the police officers he decided to write about. He'd laid eyes upon one of them on numerous occasions before and after the incidents depicted in his eventual book, but most importantly, he experienced first-hand how the said events were implemented into police policy and training.

The movie is now 35+ years old. At that point, it was depicting events that had occurred 15 years prior to its release. Seeing the picture now astonishingly places all police brutality in America over the past half century or so in a fresh context, since the events depicted in both the book and film inspired so many law enforcement agencies' hardline philosophies with respect to police work.

Rooted in the actions of the real-life cops in this story were the following strict policies:

1. Never give up your gun. Only cowards give up their guns.

2. Defend your life and the lives of all officers everywhere by always shooting under threat.

To witness an often first-rate dramatization of what led to the aforementioned inflexibilities, which began (not surprisingly) with the LAPD is a testament to Wambaugh's unyielding faith in the material. Unsatisfied with the severely flawed film adaptation of his first book The New Centurions, he was driven to self-finance this story that was near and dear to his heart. For the most part, his gamble and efforts paid off.

During a seemingly routine spot-check in 1963, LAPD plainclothes officers Karl Hettinger (John Savage) and Ian Campbell (Ted Danson) were kidnapped by Greg Powell (James Woods) and Jimmy "Youngblood" Smith (Franklyn Seales), two armed sociopaths on their way to a liquor store robbery. The officers were driven to an isolated farm near Bakersfield where one cop was shot repeatedly, execution-style, while the other managed to scramble away and tear madly across several miles of an onion field with the criminals in pursuit.

The officer survived and the petty hoodlums (turned cold-blooded cop killers) were captured. However, as the powerful tagline from the film's ads announced, what happened afterwards "was the real crime". The film painstakingly takes us through the initial investigation, the first trial (which results in a guilty verdict and death sentence) and then, like some labyrinthian Kafka-like nightmare, endless appeals and new trials continue - for years. In many instances, the courtroom turns topsy-turvy and endless retrials and mistrials are declared.

The surviving cop, suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, is forced to repeat the same horrific testimony to the point in which he loses count of how many times he's had to do so. Grotesquely, the court allows the jury not one, but several recreations of the killing at the exact time and in the precise spot in which the event took place, with, of course, the traumatized officer in tow. Add to this all the nightmares he experiences on a nightly basis, an overwhelming sense of guilt (placed on him by his LAPD superiors) that he was responsible for his partner's death and even being scapegoated by the LAPD to repeat said events at morning roll calls and training session with rookies. He's told this will help other officers to avoid mistakes that could lead to similar events in their own careers.

The cop's grief, deep shame and guilt mount steadily and overwhelmingly - so much so that he turns to alcohol, becomes a kleptomaniac and even physically abuses his own newborn baby before seriously contemplating suicide (and one night, caught by his eldest child as he places a gun in his mouth). Not only does he become a walking textbook case in which policies are changed, but the department offers no psychiatric assistance. Adding insult to injury, he's eventually caught redhanded while shoplifting and forced to resign, leaving him jobless and bereft of any benefits like medical insurance. His wife is forced to take work while he becomes a stay-at-home Dad with plenty of time on his hands to recount the tragic and terrifying events of that one night.

Yes, these actions perpetrated by the system not only bordered on criminality, but it's a perfect example of how institutions like the police department punished their own men instead of supporting them after traumatic incidents like this and how the wheels of justice often became an endless joke which had little to do with real justice, but rather, endless bureaucratic wheel spinning under the guise of providing the best defence for the perpetrators of crime.

Seeing this play out is both gruelling and haunting.

The Onion Field is, for the most part, an extremely fine film, but it's also saddled with a few glaring flaws, many of which are clearly the result of its producer (Wambaugh) having, perhaps, too much power and losing a clear sense of perspective in the pursuit of reality. There is, for example, a dreadful musical score which creeps in with jangling mediocrity during many of the "domestic" sequences and yet, is spare and effective during so much of the rest of the movie. How this inconsistency was allowed by Wambaugh is still a head-scratcher. Though the vast majority of the performances are flawless, there are a handful of smaller roles acted so badly that they stick out like sore thumbs. Harold (Sea of Love) Becker's direction wildly, unpredictably bounces between effective, subtle and chilling whilst alternately slipping into by the numbers TV-style camera jockeying.

One finally forgives these creative inconsistencies and instead admires what's great about the film: a genuine attempt to capture the complexities of the criminals and what led them to lives of criminality, the almost docudrama attention to the details of the initial interrogations, the strange machinations of the trials, the horrific day-to-day lifestyle on death row (including a horrendous suicide attempt by a man slated for a trip to the gas chamber), the unrelenting seediness of the motels, streets and cheap rooming houses the two main sociopaths lived in and most successfully, the film's successful rendering of a sense of family amongst the criminal class - one that's alternately false and deeply felt as real.

The leading performances are, without question, first-rate, but it's James Woods who steals the show with his crazy, scary performance as the most psychopathic of the duo. He chills to the bone in ways he's been able to mimic over the years, but here with a sense of razor sharp reality that has you on the edge of your seat.

There are moments in the film that are so moving that they're not only unforgettable, but are examples of the kind of filmmaking which is now so rare in American film, but was virtually de rigueur during the 70s - little details like when one of the cops, his hands up, slowly touches his partner's fingers when he realizes he's going to die, hoping to have one last touch of life before it all ends, or when one of the cops appears to be crying and his partner points out that it's a physical reaction to the fields of onions and later on, as the surviving cop brutally punches his baby in the back to make it stop crying and then, almost immediately fills up with horror and self-loathing over what he's done. The movie is full of moments like this which force you to catch your breath - again and again - as these heart-wrenching moments of sadness and brutality repeatedly knock the wind out of you.

Two especially powerful moments on opposite ends of the emotional and legal spectrum haunted me long after I first saw the movie first-run and knocked me flat when seeing it again on Blu-Ray are as follows:

1. When the most "sane" of the two criminals is asked if he feels guilty, he responds: "I think that is something that rich white guys dreamed up to keep guys like me down. I honestly don't believe there is such a thing... such a feeling. Guilty? That's just something the Man says in court when your luck runs out."

2. When the District Attorney, after endless trials and appeals decides to leave the law profession altogether upon realizing that the cop who died is long forgotten and that the one who survived is a mere ghost and that all that really remains with any meaning at all is the legal process. He states, with no irony at all that if it was in his power, he'd let the criminals go free. "…I'd just drop all the charges. Let 'em walk. If only I could send some lawyers and judges to the gas chamber."

The Onion Field, maybe now more than ever, is one of the most moving and truthful indictments of the American justice system ever put on film. It's neither dated, nor irrelevant to America today. It allows us to weep for the men on the beat as much as those behind bars and most of all, for the mess this incident inspired which transformed law enforcers into cold-hearted killers.


The Onion Field is currently available on a new Blu-Ray from Kino-Lorber with an excellent selection of extras including a fine commentary track by director Harold Becker.