221. The Onion Field (US 1979)

director: Harold Becker

starring: Jon Savage, James Woods, Franklyn Seales, Ted Danson, Dianne Hull, Ronny Cox, Christopher Lloyd

book/screenplay: Joseph Wambaugh

The aftermath of a cop killing.

synopsis:  l963: two plainclothes LAPD officers (Savage/Danson) are abducted by armed small-time criminals (Woods/Seales) after a routine traffic stop, then driven to a remote area where one is brutally executed. One escapes and the perpetrators are captured and brought to trial. Despite overwhelming evidence, the slayers managed to drag the justice process on for years through appeals and delaying tactics and little by little the surviving officer begins to fall apart...

An actors' film. Author Joseph Wambaugh's recreation of the Onion Field murder marks a departure from his more scurrilous novels (The Choirboys being a good example) and is a particularly poignant example of how society is easily blighted by those who can manipulate its weak points and its good citizens as a sop to their own selfishness, perversions and inadequacies. It also makes many good, prescient points about the inadequacies of the American legal system and how predatory, parasitic lawyers are almost as bad as the degenerates they represent.

Woods should have been a much bigger star and shouldn't have a ended up an end of pier monstrosity, or sought work in TV ('Shark', being the latest abomination).

Whereas Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks (when there's nobody looking) are essentially dull empty vessels, Woods' s 'wired' persona could have better been employed over the years and he should have produced a more substantial, quality portfolio of films than that which currently exists.

Jon Savage is an odd fellow. His pained expressions and weird delivery suggest dental and/or bowel problems.

Danson's just a twat obviously, but if you can make the leap of faith required to believe in his character, it's probably his best film. (See also "It's probably Jim Davidson's best-ever gameshow" for a poor quality analogy.)

Seales is good in an unthankless role as Woods's hapless foil/acolyte/crony Smith, but this is Woods' film. He gives a mesmersing performance as low-life mastermind, barrack-room lawyer, sociopath Gregory Powell .

The best line of the film goes to an ageing, un-named beat cop, who, when told that LA police officers must not give up their guns under any circumstances, tells the other gathered cops:

"If someone pointed a gun at my head, I'd give them my gun, my badge and my shit-stained skivvies."

This is countered by Ned Wilson's LAPD Captain who tells the  men: "Any man who gives up his gun to some punk is a coward. Any man who does can kiss his badge goodbye, if I can help it. You're policemen. Put your trust in God."

A powerful film which tells its true (as far as anyone knows) story with economy and a fair degree of skill.

Watch Woods's performance and wonder why he wasn't nominated for an Academy award (whereas Dustin 'Uh! Oh! Spaghetti-os!' was nominated).