Monday, April 14, 2014

The Onion Field Novel & Movie


Ed here: For me one of the most important books I've ever read. And the movie is almost as good as the book.

by Greg Ferrara Movie Morlocks


There was a time in the seventies when Joseph Wambaugh was just about the top crime writer in the nation.  In the years before John Grisham and James Patterson came to prominence, Wambaugh novels got multiple adaptations into film but, unlike Grisham and Patterson, they weren’t very successful at the box office although they were very good on the whole and one of them, The Onion Field, scored big both with audiences and critics and launched the career of James Woods.  I hadn’t seen it since 1979 and was surprised upon a second viewing how much better it was than I remembered.

The novel falls into the category of true crime and covers the story of the murder of a police officer in Bakersfield, California, in 1963, with great precision and detail.  Reading the actual facts of the case and comparing them with the book or movie and one finds there’s little to no meddling with the chain of events as they really happened, until the second half of the movie where personal motivations, fears and beliefs are dramatized to give an emotional understanding to the events as they happened.  The movie divides into two parts and neither suffers in comparison to the other.

(more--I skipped over the long plot line with spoilers)

Director Harold Becker didn’t have the most distinguished career but he did some good movies with moderate success, including Taps, Vision Quest, and Sea of Love.  The Onion Field still stands as his best.  At crucial moments, like the shooting of Detective Campbell on the ground in the field, he pulls the camera back and puts the two actors so close together with the bullets coming from between them that it’s impossible to know what happened.  He’s keeping it murky, just as it was in life, through inventive camera work and editing.  But what he really does well is pull back emotionally from scenes that might go too far in the hands of someone else...

The acting throughout is excellent from all concerned.  John Savage uses his distant gaze to great advantage to express the emotional struggles of his character.  Although he does occasionally suffer an emotional release, he mainly uses his eyes to convey anguish, glancing away, downward, as if afraid to look anyone in the eye after what he’s done, or, at least, what he thinks he’s done.

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1 comment:

Mathew Paust said...

The book was mesmerizing, and James Wood will ever give me a shiver of recognition for that role. It comes to mind whenever I smell wild onions while mowing the lawn.