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LGM Film Club, Part 201: The Onion Field

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The 1970s was an era of interesting film failures. There was so much going on in the movies during these years that even many of the less successful films had interesting ideas in them and sometimes riveting performances and scenes. I was reminded of this when watching the 1979 Harold Becker directed film The Onion Field. Starring Ted Danson, James Woods, John Savage, and Franklyn Seales, it is a story of two cops and two gangsters who interact to tragic results. Up to that point, which is about 40 percent of the way through the film, it is an excellent movie, especially Woods as a complete psychopath. The real point of the movie though is about the impact of the death upon the people who did it and the surviving cop. Based on a real story that included the longest court case in California history, it winds down real slow and takes way too long to do so. The last 15 minutes are a complete disaster. But Woods is so fantastic in it and his jailhouse lawyer ways are bookended by two great cameos, first from Christopher Lloyd who teaches him the ropes and then from William Sanderson (Larry in Newhart and the great E.B. Farnham in Deadwood) who needs his services. Becker went on to direct Vision Quest, Sea of Love, Malice, City Hall, and other mainstream Hollywood movies. Not sure he ever directed a movie that I’d really call good. Rather, a lot of films like this, with highlights that don’t really hold together as movies.

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