Saturday, February 08, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—The Onion Field (1979) ***½

R, 122 min.
Director: Harold Becker
Writers: Joseph Wambaugh (also book)
Starring: John Savage, James Woods, Franklyn Seales, Ted Danson, Ronny Cox, David Huffman, Christopher Lloyd, Diane Hull, Pricilla Pointer, Beege Barkett, Richard Herd, Lee Weaver

“The Onion Field” is kind of a strange movie. It’s certainly a cinematic child of the ‘70s, a movie that would never be made the way it was then today. It contains some amazing performances, notably by the very young James Woods as a sociopath with a remarkable ability to manipulate people and the justice system. It also contains a surprisingly good performance by a pre-“Cheers” Ted Danson, and a strong leading performance by John Savage as a young detective who becomes a victim of the system within which he works.

The story follows Savage’s detective who loses his new partner in a terrible kidnapping of the two detectives by two thieves. One is the nervy Franklyn Seales, who is just a pawn of Wood’s sociopath. Like so many of the films of the seventies, director Harold Baker takes his time setting up the events so you get to know all four men well before their fates intersect. Danson’s veteran detective shows indications that he regrets leaving medical school to become a cop just before things go all wrong on a routine traffic stop.

However, it’s Savage that bears the weight of the message behind the film, which doesn’t outright condemn the justice system. It looks at all sides, including some in depth examination of the LAPD’s attempts at enforcing a foolproof standard operations procedure that can never be foolproof. The moment where a veteran beat cop speaks out against the department’s recommended procedure when Savage is all but blamed for his partner’s death is a poignant one.

The movie also shows how the system works, with procedure playing a role in the swift capture of the culprits, who then manipulate the appeals courts in their favor. The lawyers are helpless to their own system and yet they and their rules are necessary. It’s an almost ambiguous movie in its full court examination of how the justice system works and doesn’t. Based on a true story, it makes you wish it really worked as well as it does on television, with every criminal confessing to their crimes in one way or another; and once they go away, you never hear from them again.

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