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The Onion Field (1979)

An LA police officer is murdered in the onion fields outside of Bakersfield. However, legal loopholes could keep his kidnappers from receiving justice, and his partner is haunted by overwhelming survivor's guilt.

Director:

Harold Becker

Writers:

Joseph Wambaugh (book), Joseph Wambaugh (screenplay)
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Nominated for 1 Golden Globe. Another 1 win & 2 nominations. See more awards »

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Cast

Cast overview, first billed only:
John Savage ... Det. Karl Francis Hettinger
James Woods ... Gregory Ulas Powell
Franklyn Seales ... Jimmy Lee 'Youngblood' Smith
Ted Danson ... Det. Ian James Campbell
Ronny Cox ... Det. Sgt. Pierce R. Brooks
David Huffman ... Dist. Atty. Phil Halpin
Christopher Lloyd ... Jailhouse Lawyer
Dianne Hull ... Helen Hettinger (as Diane Hull)
Priscilla Pointer ... Chrissie Campbell
Beege Barkette ... Greg's Woman (as Beege Barkett)
Richard Herd ... Beat Cop
Le Tari ... Emmanuel McFadden
Richard Venture Richard Venture ... Det. Glenn Bates
Lee Weaver ... Billy
Pat Corley ... Jimmy's Lawyer #2
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Storyline

Gregory Ulas Powell is a disturbed ex-con who recruits Jimmy Lee "Youngblood" Smith, a petty thief, as his partner in crime. Powell panics one night when the two of them are pulled over by a pair of cops for broken brake lights. Powell decides to kidnap the cops, and Smith, as always, reluctantly goes along with Powell's crazy scheme. The group drives out to a deserted onion field in Bakersfield, California, and one officer is shot while the other escapes. The remainder of the film explores the nature of the American justice system, as well as the devastating psychological effects of this event, and the trial on the surviving officer. Written by Tad Dibbern <DIBBERN_D@a1.mscf.upenn.edu>

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis

Taglines:

A True American Tragedy Captured on Film! See more »

Genres:

Crime | Drama

Certificate:

See all certifications »

Parents Guide:

View content advisory »
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Details

Country:

USA

Language:

English

Release Date:

28 February 1980 (UK) See more »

Also Known As:

Mord im Zwiebelfeld See more »

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Box Office

Budget:

$2,000,000 (estimated)

Gross USA:

$9,890,597
See more on IMDbPro »

Company Credits

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Technical Specs

Runtime:

Sound Mix:

Mono

Color:

Color

Aspect Ratio:

1.85 : 1
See full technical specs »
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Did You Know?

Trivia

This was Ted Danson's feature film debut. See more »

Goofs

In the beginning of the film (which takes place in 1963), as the camera pans down the street, past houses, a 1965 Chevy Impala is seen parked in one of the driveways. See more »

Quotes

[last lines]
Boy piper: Yeah, I think I'll play the bagpipes as long as I live.
Chrissie Campbell: I think that's a lovely idea.
See more »

Connections

References The Night of the Hunter (1955) See more »

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User Reviews

 
True Life Story Told With Authenticity
2 November 2006 | by LechuguillaSee all my reviews

A Los Angeles cop and his partner stop a car at night for a minor traffic violation. The car contains two petty criminals. One of the criminals panics, and orders the two cops into the car, at gunpoint, and then commands one of the officers to drive the car out to the desert. Near Bakersfield, the car turns off onto a lonesome dirt road next to an onion field. Shortly thereafter, a violent confrontation occurs. Not everyone survives.

With a plot that is direct and easy to follow, "The Onion Field" tells this story in a straightforward manner. There are almost no plot twists or turns. And the film has a breathtaking sense of authenticity. Indeed, the film's kidnapping scene takes place at the intersection of Carlos and Gower, the exact location where the real life kidnapping occurred.

The film's pacing is rather slow. Scenes tend to be lengthy, with emphasis on character development. The first half gives us a snapshot of the everyday lives, both of the cops and of the two thieves. It also describes the kidnapping incident that brought them together, and the ordeal on the deserted road. Much of the second half takes place in a courtroom setting, as we see how the criminal trial plays out. This second half of the film renders a scathing indictment of the American judicial process.

The film's cinematography is fine, if perhaps somewhat dark. The background music is low-key and appropriately ominous. Production design is adequate.

Based on Joseph Wambaugh's book, the screen story itself is the strength of the film. But the acting also is quite good. James Woods, Franklyn Seales, and Ted Danson are all convincing in their roles. John Savage gives a great performance too, despite his tendency to talk as if he's got marbles in his mouth.

Fact-based films have an inherent advantage over fictional films, in my opinion. And, "The Onion Field" is made with such authenticity, with such a sense of purpose and dedication, it easily makes my list of the best crime films of the 1970s.


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