The Onion Field (1979)

R  |   |  Crime, Drama  |  17 March 1980 (Denmark)
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Reviews: 38 user | 18 critic

Greg Powell is a disturbed ex-con who recruits Jimmy Smith (aka Jimmy Youngblood), a petty thief, as his partner in crime. Powell panics one night when the two of them are pulled over by a ... See full summary »



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Nominated for 1 Golden Globe. Another 1 win & 2 nominations. See more awards »



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Cast overview, first billed only:
Det. Karl Francis Hettinger
Gregory Ulas Powell
Franklyn Seales ...
Det. Ian James Campbell
Det. Sgt. Pierce R. Brooks
David Huffman ...
Dist. Atty. Phil Halpin
Jailhouse lawyer
Helen Hettinger (as Diane Hull)
Chrissie Campbell
Greg's woman (as Beege Barkett)
Beat Cop
Le Tari ...
Emmanuel McFadden
Richard Venture ...
Det. Glenn Bates
Pat Corley ...
Jimmy's Lawyer #2


Greg Powell is a disturbed ex-con who recruits Jimmy Smith (aka Jimmy Youngblood), a petty thief, as his partner in crime. Powell panics one night when the two of them are pulled over by a pair of cops for broken brake-lights. Powell decides to kidnap the cops and Smith, as always, reluctantly goes along with Powell's crazy scheme. The group drives out to a deserted onion field in Bakersfield, California and one officer is shot while the other escapes. The remainder of the film explores the nature of the American justice system, as well as the devastating psychological effects of this event and the trial on the surviving officer. Written by Tad Dibbern <>

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis

Plot Keywords:

neo noir | trial | police | thief | robbery | See All (70) »


A True American Tragedy Captured on Film! See more »


Crime | Drama


R | See all certifications »

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Release Date:

17 March 1980 (Denmark)  »

Also Known As:

Anthropokynigi sto Los Angeles  »

Box Office


$2,000,000 (estimated)

Company Credits

Production Co:

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Technical Specs


Sound Mix:


Aspect Ratio:

1.85 : 1
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Did You Know?


The film was financed by director Harold Becker, screenwriter Joseph Wambaugh, and many of Wambaugh's friends, which allowed them to have total creative control. See more »


When Karl Hettinger is talking into the patrol car microphone, the microphone is turned around and he is actually talking into the back of it. See more »


[repeated line]
Jimmy Smith: Jumpin' Jesus!
See more »


Referenced in Ebert Presents: At the Movies: Episode #2.3 (2011) See more »

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User Reviews

Don't Miss the First Half
19 July 2010 | by (Claremont,USA) – See all my reviews

Two aspects separate this film from movie obscurity. Without doubt, James Woods manages the most frightening criminal psychotic since Richard Widmark's giggling nut-case in Kiss of Death (1947). In fact, the film fairly crackles with unbalanced energy once Woods appears. His idea of "family values" is patting you on the back one minute and sticking a gun in your face the next. At the same time, the onion field sequence is superbly staged, the suddenness of the gunshots truly unnerving. Plus, Franklyn Seales' unscripted screams are chillingly appropriate, adding greatly to the raw impact.

This gripping first half, however, gives way to a more pedestrian-- though well-meaning-- second half that could use faster pacing and narrower focus. For example, what's the point of showing us Hettinger placing plants in his pick-up and then driving off. The scene consumes about 30 seconds of pointless screen time since we already know that gardening is returning him to mental health. At the same time, the screenplay pursues a number of diverse threads that tend to divide audience interest instead of concentrating it.

The film is ex-cop Wambaugh's personal project, and it's clear he uses the case to illustrate certain aspects of the criminal justice system. Not surprisingly, the appeals process comes in for special scorn. Shrewd cop-killer Powell is able to manipulate both court proceedings and the appeals process in seemingly endless fashion for his own advantage. Wambaugh is also in sympathy with the unlucky Hettinger who's been scapegoated for his partner's death. That scene where the beat cop exposes the unreality of a departmental rule is a little gem and also, I suspect, Wambaugh speaking through the actor.

Anyway, that first half amounts to a minor masterpiece of criminal derangement brought to life by Woods' unforgettable performance.

7 of 7 people found this review helpful.  Was this review helpful to you?

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