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If someone had to imagine what Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) would look like starring and directed by James Caan, they'd have their answer with Hide in Plain Sight (1980). One year prior to the release of James Caan's directorial debut of Hide in Plain Sight, Kramer vs. Kramer became a smash hit (the top box-office draw of the year, in fact) dealing with divorced parents and child custody. Just a year later, Caan made his own movie about divorced parents and child custody that managed to work in the mob and a shootout near the end. Naturally. James Caan doesn't do things delicately.
Surprisingly, Caan does have a rather delicate touch as a director. Hide in Plain Sight displays his talents on the other side of the camera and it's a shame Caan never directed again. Of course, he had good reason.
"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," Caan said in an interview in 1981 while promoting his starring role in Michael Mann's Thief. He added, "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?'"
It was an endlessly frustrating experience for Caan and on top of that, the reviews were mixed. Vincent Canby liked it, saying Caan made a lot of great choices but other critics, like Roger Ebert, complained it was uneven and slow. It is neither. It may be of little solace to Caan at this point but Hide in Plain Sight is gaining a reputation it inexplicably missed out on upon its release.
The story of Hide in Plain Sight is based on the real life events surrounding the life of the blue-collar worker played by Caan, Thomas Hacklin. Divorced and without custody of his children, Hacklin spends odd nights baby-sitting his own children while his ex-wife, Ruthie (Barbra Rae), and her new boyfriend Jack (Robert Viharo), go out on elaborate dinner dates. The only problem is Jack is doing some shady work for the mob and when he gets caught, he marries Ruthie so she can't testify against him and goes into the Witness Protection Program. Now Thomas won't be able to see his kids at all or perhaps never again.
Hacklin hires a lawyer (Danny Aiello) and even gets inside the halls of Congress but to no avail. No one will help him find his children and Hacklin eventually takes matters into his own hands.
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.
Caan also shows a talent for the long shot. Several scenes in Hide in Plain Sight take time to play out but never drag. For example, at the very opening of the movie, a very long and beautiful crane shot slowly dollies in from several hundred feet back, over a dreary factory parking lot, until closing in on Caan and actor Joe Grifasi walking to their cars.
Speaking of Joe Grifasi, was there another character actor in the eighties so consistently overlooked? He has one of his best supporting roles here and everyone else in the cast also turns in a wonderful performance, including Jill Eikenberry, Robert Viharo, Barbra Rae and Danny Aiello.
James Caan directed only this one film and walked away. He said of his experience, ''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.'' If their paths crossed in another life, he could commiserate with Charles Laughton, another actor who directed but one feature, The Night of the Hunter (1955), that found a renewed life and reputation beyond its initial release. Hide in Plain Sight may never be considered great on the scale of Laughton's film, but it's a terrific film nonetheless and shows once again that some people with a talent for direction get driven away by misguided criticisms. It's too bad. It would have been interesting to see what other films Caan might have created.
Producer: Robert W. Christiansen, Rick Rosenberg
Director: James Caan
Screenplay: Spencer Eastman (screenplay); Leslie Waller (book)
Cinematography: Paul Lohmann
Music: Leonard Rosenman
Film Editing: Fredric Steinkamp, William Steinkamp
Cast: James Caan (Thomas Hacklin), Jill Eikenberry (Alisa/Ali), Robert Viharo (Jack Scolese), Joe Grifasi (Matty Stanke), Barbra Rae (Ruthie Hacklin), Kenneth McMillan (Sam Marzetta), Josef Sommer (Jason R. Reid, Justice Dept. Strike Force), Danny Aiello (Sal Carvello), Thomas Hill (Bobby Momisa), Chuck Hicks (Frankie Irish).
by Greg Ferrara
The New York Times, At the Movies, Chris Chase, April 3, 1981