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


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.