Film Reviews

The Onion Field: A True Crime Drama

My first impression of The Onion Field was that it detailed the years during the murder investigation and life after the investigation of the first ten years. This film is not for everyone, but it has great acting performances to keep the story going.

This is a true crime story about a cop doing a traffic stop check killed in cold blood based on the true accounts during the murder investigation and afterwards. This film is based on the 1973 book of the same name. This film is grim and feels long when viewing it for the first time. The pacing is fine for the story being told. It goes through ten years after the investigation of the murder in the onion fields with the witness moving on with feelings of guilt and remorse affecting his health and the criminals calling for appeals in court only to have their initial sentences lessened.

Screen shot of Ted Danson and John Savage playing Ian Campbell and Karl Hettinger sitting at the diner at night.
Screenshot of Ian Campbell (Ted Danson) and Karl Hettinger (John Savage) sitting at the diner at night.

The story starts in the summer of 1963 with the two criminals played by Greg Powell (James Woods) and Jimmy “Youngblood” Smith (Franklyn Seales) discussing their next plan of robberies during the day constantly carrying a gun in their pants. Then transitions to the two LAPD detectives Ian Campbell (Ted Danson) and Karl Hettinger (John Savage) talking about their day and planned future activities then eating at a diner at night. The two criminals were driving around at night scoping out their new hit that the police saw as suspicious. Then they did an illegal u-turn that got the police in their unmarked police car to pursue them to pull them over. Not wanting to be pulled over and inspected by the police, Powell pulls a gun on Campbell. In the heat of the exchange, Hettinger gives Smith his gun while Campbell was at gunpoint. The criminals kidnap the two cops at gunpoint and drive them to the onion fields in Bakersfield, California, north of Los Angeles away from the city. After the police got out of the car, Powell, who wanted to envoke the Little Lindbergh Law while discussing that with Smith earlier ends up shooting Campbell in the face killing him instantly. Hettinger ended up running for his life to running to the closest farmhouse cloaked in darkness after a large cloud blocked the moonlight.

Screen shot of Greg Powell (James Woods) and James Smith (Franklyn Seales) being incarcerated.
Screenshot of Greg Powell (James Woods) and James Smith (Franklyn Seales) being incarcerated.

Just to explain this part of the movie based on what the filmmakers said, the Little Lindbergh Law is a federal offence to kidnap a victim across state lines. It was based on the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping crime in 1932. But it was nullified by the murder.

Screenshot of Greg Powell (James Woods) yelling during interrogation.

This film is very tense with great performances and their understanding of the characters. The murder scene of Ian Campbell had particularly good acting choices with screaming added in. It even gave James Woods some accolades and a Kansas City Film Festival award.

There are very few special effects in the film beyond the murder scene. The photos they made of Campbell’s deceased body can be irksome. It has scenes with age effect makeup on the incarcerated criminals and the surviving witness to show the effects of stress over the years. The colour grading and film techniques are fairly simple and not stylized having no tonal changes or deep shadows. The other special effect was the clouds crossing the moonlight making the field darker. The location of the film used real courtrooms, police stations, jailhouses and real street scenes in Valencia, Los Angeles, Maricopa and Taft, California that adding to the realism of the film with most of the set not in need to be built and cutting down on cost. Plus, some workers were cast as extras in some courthouse and police station scenes.

The DVD that I originally watched this film had a special feature that explained more about the film which is how I know more about the story and the filmmaking.

The film was written by the same writer of the original book – Joseph Wambaugh. He was a cop who kept writing while still being on the force until his novel career took off. He financed his first film and had a lot of final say about the story direction to director Harold Becker. The Onion Field was filmed in 42 days. The writer kept the story as accurate to the real life story without changing anything for a happy ending.


Further reading based on the true story: ‘The Onion Field’ film played role in keeping killer behind bars by Susan King, LA Times (2012)

Genre: Crime/Drama
Year: 1979
Duration: 126 minutes

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Three and a half out of five stars

All screenshots are from the film

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