The Onion Field Review
The Onion Field opens with cops Karl Hattinger (Savage) and Ian Campbell (Danson) pulling a car over to the side of the road to ask about a broken rear light. Unknown to them, a pair of ex-cons occupy the car, Greg Powell (Woods) and Jimmy Smith (Seales), both of whom knew each other from inside with Powell having some sway over the downbeat Smith. No matter that Smith tries to calm the situation, Powell produces a gun and shoots Campbell dead on a dirt road between two Onion Fields. With Smith fearful that Powell will make him carry the crime, he tries to get away but is dragged back. Hattinger, meanwhile, escapes through the onion fields but, with Powell and Seales playing the legal system against one another, he goes through hell for years after, labouring under the guilt he felt from leaving Campbell to die alone.
Based on an actual case from 1963, The Onion Field, features a startling opening act up until the point Hattinger makes his escape. With a young-looking Woods playing a slippery local hood, the film twists between his lowly but exaggerated place in the community and Smith's frustrated attempts to go straight. As Smith tries backing away from Powell, suspecting that not only is he still involved in petty crimes but that he is also gay, he's also fighting off advances from Powell's pregnant partner and struggling to earn enough to keep his life together. Meanwhile, Campbell, who's a veteran cop, takes Hattinger into his car with the loyalty shown from one to the other thrown aside when Powell opens fire.
The remaining two thirds of the film is split between Powell and Seales delaying prosecution by playing their differing accounts of the night against one another and Hattinger tearing himself apart as his guilt over the death of his partner becomes too much. In one shocking sequence, he beats his crying child as it lies in the cot whilst his wife sleeps upstairs, only snapping out of it when he finally realises he's sitting in his living room with the barrel of his police-issue gun in his mouth. Unfortunately, the film never really resolves either story, with there being no real resolution. In the end, the film skips to something, at least for Hattinger, that approaches a happy ending but with Powell smirking in his cell and Smith still unsettled by his failure to make it straight, The Onion Field jumps, rather than flows, to an ending.
Woods, though, is great in his breakthrough role as the psychotic Powell and Savage, although great in The Deer Hunter, is Woods' equal and carries the final two-thirds of the film largely on his own. Although The Onion Field is a great little film, it will appeal to those who prefer the dry telling of a true-life investigation rather than the cut and thrust of a Bruckheimer production.
The Onion Field has been anamorphically presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and looks good. Whilst the cinematography is as dry as the film, the transfer is fine if a little on the soft side.
The film is presented on this release with it's English Mono soundtrack intact and, no matter the lack of a stereo or surround remix, sounds fine, with the bustle of the city offset against the silence of the onion fields. As well as the German, Spanish and Italian Mono soundtracks, there is also a range of subtitles.
Theatrical Trailer (1m55s, 1.33:1, 2.0 Mono): Beginning by showing its age - A U Trailer Advertising An X Film, which makes one nostalgic for the X Certificate - this short trailer plays up the true-life story behind the film.
Documentary: The Return To The Onion Field (30m46s, 1.33:1, 2.0 Mono): Beginning with the Theatrical Trailer, this documentary interviews director Harold Becker, Joseph Wambaugh, who wrote the book investigating the murder on which the film is based, and actors Ted Danson and James Woods about the film, the original case and asks them for their thoughts on each other. Wambaugh is obviously knowledgeable on the subject and brings an enthusiasm to the true-life case, which Becker fails to.
Audio Commentary With Harold Becker: As with his appearances, Becker remains a solid if unexciting presence on this audio track but offers a great deal of background information on both the film and the original case on which it was based but little that is not also present in the documentary.
In as much as the surface noise from the average Jerry Bruckheimer film has almost ensured that films like The Onion Field have all but disappeared, the appearance of this on DVD has shown that there's still life in the true-life crime drama outside of the Hallmark Channel. Whilst not great, for its first three-quarters, The Onion Field is sufficiently interesting to come back to a few times at least.