“The Onion Field” (1979) dir. Harold Becker

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One of the best … and saddest … true-crime films ever made, “The Onion Field” is a docudrama about a real-life case in 1963 where two plainclothes police officers Karl Hettinger and Ian Campbell (played by John Savage and Ted Danson) were taken hostage by two petty criminals Greg Powell and Jimmy Smith (played by James Woods and Franklyn Seales). When Powell pulls a gun on Campbell, Hettinger reluctantly gives up his gun. Powell, misunderstanding California’s “Little Lindbergh law,” believed that the mere kidnapping of a police officer was punishable by death, so he shot and killed Campbell. In truth, kidnapping under the Little Lindberg Law was only a capital crime if the subject is harmed. Hettinger manages to escape. But the real nightmare is ahead …

Hettinger is scorned by his fellow officers for being “cowardly” and his experience is used in a training film on what not to do when stopping and approaching a vehicle. The overwhelming guilt causes Hettinger enormous emotional pain, at one point being forced to resign due to a shoplifting incident while working a security detail in a department store. At his lowest moment, Hettinger strikes his infant child when the child won’t stop crying, easily one of the most shocking and depressing scenes in any major motion picture.

Powell, on the other hand, became a master manipulator of the legal system. Initially sentenced to death, Powell was able to push forward multiple appeals, eventually getting a second trial and getting his sentence commuted to life.

“The Onion Field” contains some excellent performances, especially by Wood and Savage. Wood’s performance is so good, I would almost say it’s his best, if it weren’t for his performance in 1986’s “Salvador.” However, Savage’s performance is truly heartbreaking. Not only a career best, Savage not only should have been nominated for an Oscar, but walked away with it as well. It’s unforgettable.

Based on Joseph Wambaugh’s superior non-fiction book of the same name, “The Onion Field” is one of those awesomely complex films of the 1970s that’s rarely discussed these days. Director Harold Becker takes his time getting to the actual crime, but the details we get on all of the protagonists’ lives are extremely rich. His depiction of Powell and Smith’s pathetic criminal life prior to the kidnapping is one of the best depictions of low-level petty crime ever filmed. It’s high time “The Onion Field” gets rediscovered and celebrated. While the DVD is out of print, if you have Amazon Prime, it’s currently available for free viewing.

The attached scene is the depiction of the actual shooting. While it’s tastefully directed and edited, it’s still a pretty upsetting scene to watch.

“Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession” (2004) dir. Alexandra Cassevetes

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Z Channel was a Los Angeles-based cable-TV movie channel that was active during the 1970s and 1980s. What made Z Channel different from HBO, Showtime, and other popular movie channels at the time was their eclectic programming and willingness to show films no one else was showing on television, cable or otherwise. The programmer, a man by the name of Jerry Harvey, was a hardcore cinephile and was diligent about tracking down the most obscure cinematic gems.  His intelligence, intensity, and diligence impressed (and sometimes annoyed) a lot of filmmakers, studio executives, and other creative types in Hollywood.

Z Channel was incredibly popular with the creative community in Hollywood.  Harvey was so well-respected, he was able to get the rights to show Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” during the 1977 Oscar season (while it was still in many theaters) which arguably led to its multiple Oscar nominations and wins.  He also championed Oliver Stone’s “Salvador,” which also led to its critical resurgence and subsequent Oscar nominations in 1986.  However, Harvey’s most important legacy was the promotion of the so-called “director’s cut” and “letterboxing,” which preserved the widescreen composition of films for viewing on non-widescreen TVs.  In 1983, he showed the original director’s cut version of Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate,” a film many considered a notorious flop, but a film that Harvey felt was a great film undermined by studio tinkering and the director’s own insecurity after the original director’s cut was severely criticized.  This led to premiering Bernardo Bertolucci’s 5 1/2 hour European (and in America, X-rated) director’s cut of his classic “1900,” as well as the European cut of Luchino Visconti’s masterpiece “The Leopard.”

Despite the professional respect he won by many in the creative community, Harvey was a very, very troubled man.  He eventually shot and killed his second wife, before committing suicide in 1988.

“Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession” is a great documentary not only about Z Channel and the early days of cable TV, but of Harvey himself.  It was directed by John Cassevetes’ daughter Alexandra Cassevetes and contains interviews with Quentin Tarantino, Robert Altman, Paul Verhoeven, Vilmos Zsigmond, Henry Jaglom, Jacqueline Bisset, Alexander Payne, Jim Jarmusch, Theresa Russell, James Woods, Penelope Spheeris and many, many other directors, screenwriters, and actors who testify about the importance and influence of Z Channel.

While a lot of it is sad, the documentary is an orgy for film buffs, with lots of great clips and interviews.  This is one of my desert island films.

“Salvador” (1986) dir. Oliver Stone

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Made in the same year as Oliver Stone’s breakthrough “Platoon,” “Salvador” is arguably Stone’s best film. The late, great critic Pauline Kael described the directorial style of this film as someone putting a gun to the back of Stone’s neck and shouting “GO!!” That’s pretty much the long and short of it. The most exciting political thriller since Costa-Gavras’s “Z,” “Salvador” is like a Hunter S. Thompson story in hell.

James Woods gives his all-time best performance as sleazebag photographer Richard Boyle.  Apologies to Paul Newman, but he should have gotten the Best Actor Oscar for “Hud,” “Cool Hand Luke,” “The Verdict,” or “Nobody’s Fool.”  Sorry, Woods deserved the Oscar in 1987.  If there was any role Woods was born to play, it’s Boyle.  And the supporting performances, from James Belushi to Elpidia Carillo to Micheal Murphy to John Savage to Tony Plana are all magnificent.

This is political cinema as an action film.  You can really see Kathryn Bigelow taking notes (Stone produced her 1989 thriller “Blue Steel”) for her later work on “Strange Days” and “The Hurt Locker.”

 

1. “Videodrome” (1982) dir. David Cronenberg

Number 1 on Dave’s Strange World’s all-time favorite films is David Cronenberg’s mind-blowing science-fiction / horror film about porn, technology, mind control, and government conspiracies. When “Videodrome” came out, it was treated like a cheap exploitation film due to its graphic sex and gore. Fortunately, history has been kind not only to Cronenberg as a filmmaker, but also to “Videodrome.” It’s now a part of the prestigious Criterion Collection and if any film needs rediscovery and appreciation, it’s “Videodrome.”

James Woods is perfect as the sleazy owner of an adults-only TV station looking to push the envelope for higher ratings. He encounters and becomes obsessed with an S&M flavored “snuff” TV show called Videodrome that he pursues with a vengeance. His obsession with Videodrome leads him down some very, very dark paths and not the ones you would immediately expect.

30 years later, it’s scary how much of “Videodrome” is now reality. Except that the government doesn’t need to implant a tumor-inducing mind-control growth in your brain through extreme pornography. Every time you log on to a computer, use your smart phone, send an e-mail, it’s being recorded … somewhere. And people’s constant desire to find something even more extreme and perverse to look at it is is getting easier and easier and along with consumerism, is furthering a “life is cheap” philosophy that’s getting worse and worse. And it’s all being done with your consent.

This clip is extremely surreal, but properly conveys the trippiness of this masterpiece. Deborah Harry (of Blondie) plays Nikki, Max’s partner in perversity. Not safe for work by any means.