Injustice Department: Hide in Plain Sight (1980)

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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. 

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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).

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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.

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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:

I spent two years of my life doing it, and some jerk at United Artists -who’s been fired, thank God – said, ‘This picture isn’t commercial.’ Well, it wasn’t. There were no sharks.Plus I had to listen to speeches like, ‘I’ve been watching rushes for 40 years, and you have to do so and so.’ I’d say, ‘everything’s changed in 40 years. Peanut butter’s changed in 40 years. What are you telling me?’ ‘I mean, the guy put music into my film when I wasn’t there. I said, ‘I don’t want music, I’m shooting a cinema verite kind of thing, so why the hell is the Fifth Symphony coming out of the candy store, all of a sudden?’  He won’t direct again, Mr. Caan says, because ‘everybody wants to do ‘Rocky Nine’ and ‘Airport 96′ and ‘Jaws Seven’ and you look and you listen, and what little idealism you have left slowly dwindles.’

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.

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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.”

8 Responses Injustice Department: Hide in Plain Sight (1980)
Posted By Raven Thom : May 31, 2016 3:23 pm

Imagine the Government coming in, taking your children from you, locking them up, and forcing them to abandon their way of life. Not allowed to speak their language, forced to give up the clothing and wear another’s Telling them they are not allowed to pray to their religious upbringing, forced to pray to a god not of their belief or chosen…
YES! THhe UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT DID THIS!
Look around you, How many Native American’s do you know?
ASK ONE!

Posted By Flora : May 31, 2016 4:08 pm

Buffalo, New York is your home town? Although I am Canadian, I was born in P.A. near the border of New York and was very ill, so I was picked up by the University hospital in Buffalo and spent the first two weeks of my life in a neo-natal unit (my Mom is Canadian hence me living here).

I have not yet seen the movie you mention as your favourite Buffalo location shoot. I have seen several movies about Native Americans (they call themselves First Nations in Canada) as your first commenter mentions.

I love the movie The Natural. It is one of my favourite Redford films and one of my favourite baseball films.

Posted By kingrat : May 31, 2016 4:09 pm

Emmet, you didn’t mention Robert Viharo, excellent as the low-level mobster. I hoped this movie would let to more roles for him, but not so.

Caan does something remarkable with HIDE IN PLAIN SIGHT: he gives his best performance in a film he directs. This isn’t often the case (for instance, Jodie Foster’s performance is OK but below her usual standard in LITTLE MAN TATE, the fine film she directed).

Posted By cicero grimes : May 31, 2016 5:16 pm

To Kingrat:
I expected more work from Robert Viharo also….I guess his VERY specific looks had a limiting effect on his offers.
Its very close, but I might prefer Caan in Thief to this one,and (guilty pleasure time) I am a sucker for his supporting work in Way of the Gun

Posted By Doug : June 1, 2016 12:25 am

Buffalo, made port in the middle of a blizzard, 1978. Out on liberty a cabdriver graciously offered to sell us drugs, which my shipmate and I politely declined. City may have been beautiful; all we could see was blowing snow.

Posted By Flora : June 1, 2016 2:12 am

Yes, I was in that city in the middle of a Blizzard. The winter, you know…

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 1, 2016 8:06 pm

Emmet, great piece. I wrote the article here at TCM for Hide in Plain Sight and we are very much on the same page. From my article:

“The acting is uniformly good in Hide in Plain Sight, showing Caan was as good a director of actors as he was one himself and that’s saying a lot. He doesn’t fall into the common traps of actors-turned-directors by letting himself go too big in any given scene or making himself front and center for every shot. In fact, his direction displays a real confidence for getting the shot that works for the scene rather than the shot that works for the actor. In a couple of key emotional scenes, Caan pulls the camera back or tracks it along outside the action, letting the audience fill in the words while distancing them from the emotional pain of the character, protecting them, so to speak. It’s a bold move and one that works exceptionally well.”

The rest of my article here. I don’t often link to my articles on another Morlock’s post but it’s a movie I have always felt was underrated and underseen and I’m excited that you put up this post on it and I guess I just want to share in the excitement.

Posted By George : June 3, 2016 2:04 am

Yeah, HIDE IN PLAIN SIGHT is a good flick. Too bad it flopped and Caan never directed again.

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