by Harold Becker
Joseph Wambaugh was a cop who started writing best selling novels. He was unhappy with what Hollywood did with his first two, so, when his third book came out, a nonfiction account of what was then the longest-lasting case in California history, he refused to sell the rights. Instead, he raised money and produced it himself to make sure it was done the way he wanted. The result was The Onion Field
In the movie, small-time crooks Gregory Powell (James Woods) and Jimmy Lee Smith (Franklyn Seales) teamed up to commit a bunch of low-level but violent crimes. When they are pulled over by policemen Karl Hettinger (John Savage) and Ian Campbell (Ted Danson), they panic, taking the two cops hostage. One of the cops is killed and the results affect all of the others.
This movie brought James Woods front and center as an actor. He had been in a few films before, but this was his first standout role and his performance as Powell really leapt off the screen. Powell is a charismatic and cold-blooded criminal, and the most dangerous part of him is that he thinks he's much smarter than he is. Woods ignites the screen in every scene he's in.
It may be surprising that Ted Danson plays a dramatic role, but it wasn't surprising at the time, mostly because Danson was unknown. This was his first film role, so there were no expectations. I sometimes wonder if one reason he used the name Becker years later was to thank the director who gave him one of his best roles.
The rest of the cast is also excellent. Savage and Seales never made it big, but they are also terrific as men trapped in a situation not entirely of their making and trying to survive it. Savage has had a successful career, but rarely the spotlight, while Seales never got the roles he deserved after this.
This is one of the best cop movies made -- Wambaugh's background and control made sure that the details were right -- but it's primarily the story of a bad situation that became worse.
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