Leslie Waller’s true-crime novel Hide in Plain Sight — about a simple-living Buffalo man whose children and wife disappeared one day in 1967 without explanation — kaleidoscopes eight years of disorganization, deception, and questionable decision-making. Had it been published today, it would likely have been turned into a four-part Netflix documentary within months. In 1980, James Caan released a movie version — to date the only one that that actor has directed. It’s a whopper of a story to condense into ninety minutes. Estranged from his wife, Ruthie (Barbra Rae), factory-worker Thomas Hacklin Jr. (played by Caan; his character’s name, like many in the movie, has been tweaked slightly from real life) sees his children but once a week. This generally occurs when Ruthie calls on him to babysit so she can attend extravagant dinners with her Mafia-connected lover, Jack Scolese (Robert Viharo). After getting booked on a City Hall–robbery beef, Jack audaciously testifies against his gangster superiors to escape sentencing. In exchange, the feds ferret him, Ruthie, and the two kids into isolation via the Witness Protection Program, leaving Tom none the wiser. With occasional, perhaps inevitable clumsiness, director Caan strives to address the manifold strands of narrative interest: Ruthie and Jack’s aversion to the greasy burger joints of rural Michigan; Tom’s harried attempts to get the authorities to connect him with his children; even the bureaucratic employees involved in the cover-up, some of whom question their role.
Caan signals immediately that he has not rejiggered Waller’s fact-based tale into one with an audience-friendly framework: This is no Great Man biopic or straightforward, vengeance-tinged potboiler. (The movie screens this Sunday in the Museum of the Moving Image’s cheekily titled “Caan Film Festival.”) He opens with an omniscient-feeling crane shot (the cinematographer is Paul Lohmann) that peers down at Tom and his fellow factory workers after a day on the job, the 9-to-5 bodies moving across the lot as incrementally as highway traffic glimpsed from an airplane window. After a cut, the camera concentrates on Tom and his pal Matty (Joe Grifasi) talking shop. The two have a casual, well-worn rapport, evident particularly in a later sequence when Matty, escorting Tom to a double date, gives him a Clark Gable–themed pep talk about how to impress women. Here as elsewhere, Cann exhibits no vanity in his double duties as actor-director, ceding the scene to his screen partner. In one crucial encounter — Ruthie’s confession to Tom in a public square that she has up and married Jack — Caan goes further, not only pulling the camera back from Tom and Ruthie but gradually diffusing the soundtrack so that their dialogue gets overlapped by the surrounding noise of passing cars and footsteps. As in the crane shot at the beginning, Caan sees these people — Tom the meek workingman, Ruthie the self-centered social striver — as adrift within larger forces.
Tom doesn’t learn that his kids are missing until after the half-hour mark, so much of Caan’s movie is an earnest, affectionate evocation of small-town Northeastern life, without much in the way of true-crime stakes. (R. Emmet Sweeney has written of Hide in Plain Sight’s Buffalo-accurate detail, from “an old sign for Iroquois Beer” to “the shot of a Bocce’s pizza box.”) After ditching his local’s rowdy Spring Fling, Tom and his date, Alisa (Jill Eikenberry), walk down a deserted shopping street; the second she asks about his children, Tom stops his stride and reaches for his wallet photos like it’s second nature. Caan also draws attention to the complexities of conducting touchy domestic business in a neighborhood where everybody knows your name. One front-porch argument between Tom and Ruthie is deftly composed from a low angle, with Tom and Ruthie on either side, so that a nosy neighbor can be seen up above, in the middle of the frame, listening in from her upstairs balcony.
At times, Caan and Spencer Eastman (who wrote the adapted screenplay) awkwardly downplay the interminable, years-long nature of the true story. Just barely after agreeing to take on Tom’s case at a reduced rate, the lawyer Sal Carvello (Danny Aiello) presents his client with custody papers. Tom reacts with skepticism — “Here’s what I got custody of: this piece of paper!” — but then Caan cuts to a Justice Department official (Josef Sommer) receiving a phone call verifying that Tom is taking the government to court to try to win back his kids. The compression of such significant legal, practical, and emotional maneuvers into mere minutes of screentime has the effect of fast-tracking Tom’s plight. In such moments — which include an improbable climactic encounter involving a shovel beatdown in the dark — Caan loses track of Tom as a man-of-few-words guy in a Yankees cap. Suddenly, the character’s confusion and agony no longer registers as carrying years of heft.
But for the most part, Caan sustains an appealing observational approach, and also evinces an exceptional range in his stylistic moves. If the opening shot is an exemplary use of bird’s-eye perspective, Caan also gets close to his characters, as in the movie’s most splendid transition — a match cut from Alisa’s eyes post-kiss to Ruthie’s eyes pressed against prison glass as she updates Jack on the goings-on in her life. Thematically, Caan plays an astute hand, acknowledging but not overstating the cruel irony of Tom — a proud taxpayer with a long-standing belief in order and establishment — getting sucker-punched by the very institutions he holds in high esteem. In his first day in court, Tom declares to the room, “I’m no goddamn hippie who dances around the flag, you know?” The judge asks him to be escorted out. A boring man on most days, Tom is here shown as the government must have seen him all along — as an inconvenience.