Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on May 31, 2016
In June of 1967, Thomas Leonhard’s children disappeared. They vanished along with his ex-wife and her new husband. A year later Leonhard would learn that they were given new identities as part of the FBI’s Witness Protection Program. A cement mason in Buffalo, New York, Leonhard spent the next eight years in State and Federal courts trying to win the right to see his two kids. This remarkable story became the subject of Leslie Waller’s true crime novel Hide in Plain Sight, which James Caan would adapt for his directorial debut in 1980. Caan wanted the film to be a “cinema verite kind of thing”, so he shot the film on location in Buffalo, with most of the film unfurling as a low-key docudrama, sticking to the everyday details of Leonhard’s life. United Artists considered it too arty and a money loser, so it did not receive the full support of the studio, despite largely positive critical notices. It has been available on DVD from Warner Archive for a few years, but what led me to Hide in Plain Sight was the Buffalo News’ list of the top ten films shot in Western New York. Buffalo is my hometown, and it hasn’t had much luck on the silver screen, aside from Vincent Gallo’s idiosyncratic Buffalo ’66 and some turn-of-the-century Edison shorts (I am partial to A Trip Around the Pan-American Exposition (1901)). Locals have always been most proud of The Natural (and its use of Parkside Candy Shop), but for me, Hide in Plain Sight presents a more complete view of the city, from the bars to the factories to the zoo.
In the film Leonhard’s name is changed to “Thomas Hacklin Jr.”, and in Spencer Eastman’s screenplay his job is changed from a cement mason to a rubbery factory worker, for reasons unknown. Caan plays him with mumbling, under-his-breath casualness. Pauline Kael complained that Caan “can’t express anything but ‘huh’”, but Hacklin is a mild-mannered, keep-to-himself kind of guy who keeps his emotions buried down deep. It’s a nuanced, sensitive performance from Caan, which works well against the stellar cast he has assembled. Kenneth McMillan plays police detective Sam Marzetta with sympathies for Hacklin’s plight, but he’s too busy to do anything about it. Marzetta is a like a beached whale with deli cake crumbs perpetually stuck to his moustache. Then there is Hacklin’s pal Matty (Joe Grifasi), a hatchet-faced co-worker who offers Hacklin the pleasure of inane chatter. Hacklin spends most of the film in a haze, confused about his children’s disappearance and running up against an apathetic bureaucracy. It’s only when his new girlfriend Alisa (Jill Eickenberry) hooks him up with a competent lawyer (an intense Danny Aiello) that he begins to make some progress. The movie gives Hacklin more of a hero’s ending, including a fight scene where he thwacks a guy with a shovel (which, Leonhard said, he never did).
Leonhard was fine with the film and its factual liberties. He was just happy to get his story out, telling the New York Times that the important thing was “getting his story told, so it won’t happen to anyone else.” Not that he did it for free, since he was making $250 a week at the cement factory. He received $20,000 to give up the rights to his story, and one percent of the producers’ net receipts. He became a local celebrity, becoming “one of the biggest heroes in Buffalo since O.J. Simpson” Caan does a fine job detailing the day-to-day life of Leonhard/Hacklin, starting the film with an impressive crane shot as workers leave the rubber factory, settling in on Hacklin and Matty as they make their way back home. All the markers of Buffalo life are here – there is an old sign for Iroquois Beer when Hacklin goes on a blind date. It was a local brew that traces its opening to 1842, but after a series of mergers and buyouts, the last Iroquois would be bottled in 1980, during the film’s shoot. Then there is the shot of a Bocce’s pizza box, which Hacklin’s ex-wife Ruthie (Barbara Rae) is bringing to her mobster boyfriend. Bocce’s was founded in 1946 and is still in operation today, continuing to feed the mobsters of tomorrow. There are also trips the the Buffalo Zoo, Delaware Park, and a dingy eatery called Gulliver’s on Allen St. This is where Hacklin first encounters Marzetta about the whereabouts of his family. Marzetta sits like a lumpy stone, ham sandwich in hand, refusing to answer questions to Caan’s insistent, desperate dad, Yankees cap firmly set on his head.
This was something of a passion project for Caan, and the way in which United Artists refused to support it soured him on directing – it would be the first and only feature that he directed. While promoting Michael Mann’s Thief in 1981, he vented his frustrations to the New York Times:
Though the score was imposed, the film seems otherwise unscathed, and Caan imposes some unorthodox maneuvers. During a pivotal argument between Hacklin and his ex-wife, in which she admits to marrying her mobster boyfriend, Caan starts pulling back their increasingly heated exchange until the dialogue becomes inaudible, flooded by traffic sounds. This avoidance of drama, subordinating it background noise, fits the ethos of this whole film, meant to be not just a ripping yarn but a portrait of a Rust Belt city in the midst of decline. I was born the next year, and well-paying factory jobs like Hacklin’s had disappeared by the time I was of working age.
The movie, as real as Caan tried to make it, avoided the difficult truths of the case. Leonhard was reunited with his children, now teenagers, for a summer. But they decided to move back in with their mother in Reno. After nearly a decade of searching for them, they had grown up too much without their father by their side. With great equanimity, Leonhard said, “We still love each other, but I was new to them, I was a stranger, and we didn’t have that closeness of everyday things that parents normally have with their children, things like taking your son to a ballgame, or seeing him graduate from high school, or seeing your daughter’s first date, or watching her dress up for the prom.”
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