Review: The Onion Field

Beginning in 1963, this is the real-life story of two cops (John Savage and Ted Danson) who make the decision to pull over a couple of suspicious-looking types (cunning James Woods and naïve Franklyn Seales). A gun is pulled by one of the two men, and Savage is ordered to disarm, which he does. They are driven away to a remote onion field where Danson is executed, whilst Savage is able to make his escape. Whilst the two hoodlums (quickly apprehended) drive the legal system insane with their stalling tactics, Savage goes through emotional hell, plagued with guilt over the very obvious mistake he made in dropping his weapon (albeit with Danson’s approval). Ronny Cox shows he was playing authority figures even in 1979, as a police sergeant, whilst Pat Corley is a shonky lawyer representing Seales, Priscilla Pointer is Danson’s mother, and Richard Herd (AKA Wilhelm from “Seinfeld”) plays an angry beat cop who doesn’t take kindly to instructor John De Lancie suggesting the cops made mistakes. Christopher Lloyd and William Sanderson make small but memorable appearances as jailbirds, the former giving legal advice, the latter requesting it of Woods.


Although its high point comes at the midway point, and although Franklyn Seales is one of the single worst actors I’ve ever seen, this 1979 true crime story is pretty rock-solid. Directed by Harold Becker (later to direct the excellent “Sea of Love”, as well as “The Boost” and “Taps”), it’s scripted by cop-turned-author Joseph Wambaugh (“The Choirboys”, “The Black Marble”), from his own novel. He’s a former cop, which explains the line of dialogue concerning cops having to pay for their own firearms. Only a cop would think to write in that detail, and I must admit I had no idea.


Based on a true story, the first half is really riveting, unnerving stuff, with a score to match by Eumir Deodato. There’s something creepily “In Cold Blood” about the relationship between the two criminals here (there’s a pretty obvious homosexual subtext here, too), so it’s such a shame that one of the actors is infinitely more effective than the other. There’s no getting around the fact that the late Franklyn Seales is just plain terrible here. His deep voice and strange accent (He’s a West Indian-born New Yorker but sounds oddly Cajun to me) that appear to belong to someone else entirely, make him look and sound like a ventriloquist’s dummy. The whole performance, however, is just horribly overwrought, like Robert Blake in “In Cold Blood” turned up to 11, or an entire performance based on John Turturro’s final scene in “Miller’s Crossing”. Hell, I’ll go for the trifecta and suggest that he went to the same acting school as Eric Roberts, but skipped most of the lessons. There’s an awkwardness to him that seems more born out of being ill at ease with the acting profession than playing the character’s uneasiness. Also, for an actor of West Indian descent playing a supposed African-American, I have to say, I found it rather confusing because Seales looks at best Puerto Rican. I was floored when it was revealed his character was meant to be African-American. Perhaps the real guy had light skin like Seales, but if not, it makes for some confusion there. Apparently Seales himself believed that his light skin meant there were limited opportunities for him as an actor. I’d say his shit performance here suggests something else was in his way, but at least here his complexion does seem to stick out like a sore thumb. I hate making a point of it, because it could be taken the wrong way, but he’s the one inauthentic thing (seemingly at least) in an otherwise very convincing, detailed film.


By contrast, James Woods and his creepy lack of eyebrows (what’s up with that? He’s had eyebrows in other roles!) deserved an Oscar nomination here. Infinitely more impressive than his Oscar-nominated turn as the Foghorn Leghorn of the KKK in “Ghosts of Mississippi”, he immediately creeps off with the film with a profoundly sleazy performance that truly makes your skin crawl. His character is a real piece of work, throwing Seales under the bus within seconds of the fit hitting the shan, trying to use his parents to get him out of going to the gas chamber, etc. The seriously intelligent actor has no problems convincing you as a guy willing to act as his own attorney. Ted Danson, in his feature film debut also makes a memorable early impression, even if he doesn’t convince as a Scottish-American in the slightest. Playing an easy-going, likeable senior officer to John Savage’s fragile, less experienced cop, he’s instantly likeable. The dynamic wouldn’t work if his character were the one we spent most of the film with, having him leave halfway through somehow hurts more. John Savage seemed in the 70s to be on the verge of really happening as an actor. I’m not sure what happened, but John Savage certainly never really happened (the only thing I really remember him in after this is TV’s “Dark Angel”, which had a great first season and then jumped the shark spectacularly. I don’t remember him in the several Spike Lee films he appeared in, apparently). Still, this is probably the best performance he ever gave, as the traumatised young cop who never seems to get over his one big cock-up on the job. It’s a gut-wrenching turn, you really feel for this poor guy who is suffering from what we now know as PTSD (I’m not sure how long that specific name has been around for). Even if you think, as I do, that he fucked up you can’t help but feel sorry for his descent. It’s heartbreaking. I don’t side with cigar-chompin’ Richard Herd here (I’m not entirely sure where Wambaugh or Becker sit on the issue, and that’s fine with me), but it’s nonetheless clear that Savage is not the bad guy here, and it’s sad that Danson is the one guy who could probably help this guy out, and he’s not around to do so. Meanwhile, the scumbag crims are making a mockery of the legal system. It makes you angry. Special mention must go to Pat Corley here in an amusing cameo as the worst kind of lawyer imaginable.


What I really liked about the film is that it shows mistakes on both sides of the fence here. Savage clearly fucked up, Danson to his doom supported him. Woods’ character is smart, but not a genius. Why bother continuing to fire bullets into the one guy already on the ground whilst the other one is getting away? These crims clearly aren’t pros. It’s fair to say that the film reaches the height of tension at that fateful standoff, but the second half of the film certainly has its own merits.


If it weren’t for the unrestrained and frankly weird performance by Franklyn Seales, this would be an even better film than it is. As is, it’s still strong stuff and well-written by someone who clearly knows what they’re talking about right down to the finest of details (Even shooting the infamous scene at the real-life onion field from the case!). Woods takes top acting honours as a true scumbag. 


Rating: B-


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