Hide in Plain Sight

These online essays about Telefon and Hide in Plain Sight supplement and extend the essays found in the booklet accompanying FSM’s CD release of these scores. The online notes are also available as a PDF file for more convenient printing.

James Caan’s electric, Oscar-nominated performance as Sonny Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s gangster classic The Godfather put him on the map as a star, so it was only fitting that Caan should return to the crime milieu for his first (and, to date, only) feature as a director, 1980’s fact-based Hide in Plain Sight. Unlike Coppola’s romanticized—even operatic—look at the criminal life, however, Caan’s film took an unusually low-key and naturalistic approach to tell the true story of a working man who ran afoul of both the mob and the U.S. government in his efforts to keep his family together.

Leslie Walker’s 1976 nonfiction book Hide in Plain Sight told the story of Tom Leonhard, who, one day in 1967, went to his ex-wife’s house for his weekly visitation with their two young children, only to discover the house empty and the family missing. The police were unhelpful, and Leonhard eventually learned that his ex-wife Rochelle and his children had been relocated by the newly founded Witness Security Program, after Rochelle’s new husband—a small-time criminal named Pascal “Paddy” Calabrese—had testified against his former associates in return for parole. Leonhard spent eight years unsuccessfully attempting to reunite with his children, with the government insisting that the family’s whereabouts had to be kept secret—even from Leonhard—for their safety (despite the fact that Calabrese made several undisguised trips back to Buffalo, and even moved the family to Reno, a major center of organized crime activity). Leonhard’s ordeal ended on July 4, 1975, when Rochelle called her ex-husband and told him she was remarrying, and that he could finally see his children again.

M-G-M bought the film rights to Waller’s book at the end of 1976, and the following April announced that the team of Robert Christiansen and Rick Rosenberg would produce the film, from a screenplay by Spencer Eastman (1940–1988). The producers had first teamed up for the 1970 feature Adam at 6 A.M., starring a 26-year-old Michael Douglas, but the pair went on to make their reputation as producers of such acclaimed TV movies as The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Queen of the Stardust Ballroom and A Death in Canaan (the latter written by Eastman).

Eastman’s original screenplay draft—dated August 29, 1977—kept the names of the real people involved and was faithful to the real-life setup of the story but fictionalized much of the narrative. Eastman compressed Leonhard’s separation from his children from eight years to 18 months, leading to a happier ending than the one experienced by the real Leonhard: at the end of the first summer spent with their real father, Leonhard’s two, now-teenaged children returned to Reno to live with their mother. In a March 30, 1980, New York Times article, Leonhard explained, “The kids didn’t like all the rules I set for them. I was a little stricter than their mother…. We still love each other but I was new to them, I was a stranger, and we didn’t have the closeness of everyday things that parents normally have with their children, things like taking your son to a ball game, or seeing him graduate from high school, or seeing your daughter’s first date, or watching her dress up for the prom.”

Eastman added a fictional subplot in which Leonhard learns the whereabouts of his children and travels to see them, only to abandon his attempt after discovering that a mob hit man is trailing him to find Calabrese. He also gave Tom such audience-friendly (and similarly fictional) actions as: deliberately backing his car into a government lawyer’s sports car; evading the hit man in a car chase; threatening to trash a congressman’s office in order to get his children’s address; knocking out the hit man about to kill Calabrese; knocking out Calabrese in their final confrontation; and beating up a Federal agent who tries to keep him from leaving with his children. Eastman provided the ex-wife a somewhat more sympathetic portrayal than she received in Waller’s book—the real Rochelle burdened her ex-husband with her debts while vindictively refusing him any contact with his children—while making Thomas Kennelly, the government official responsible for Calabrese’s relocation, the principal antagonist. Eastman also eliminated Rochelle’s two children by Calabrese and changed Tom’s new love interest from a divorced mother (whom he married in 1968) to an unmarried schoolteacher.

James Caan signed on to play Tom Leonhard and, after failing to find a suitable director for the project (Hal Ashby was one of the filmmakers considered), opted to helm the film himself. Eastman’s “Revised Final Draft,” dated April 14, 1978, gave all the real characters in the story fictional names, with Leonhard becoming Thomas Brackett Jr. (changed to Thomas Hacklin Jr. when filming began). The new draft remained largely faithful to the August 1977 version, although Eastman changed the car chase to a low-key, tense conversation with the hit man, moved the finale from Reno to Albuquerque, and added a subplot with Alisa (the fictional version of Joanne Leonhard) becoming pregnant by Tom before their engagement. The latter development puzzled the real-life couple, with Leonhard wondering “Why the heck did they put that in? Joanne always tells me, ‘Makes sure everybody gets it clear that that didn’t happen.’”

Caan cast former Paramount contract player Robert Viharo as Scolese (the fictional version of Calabrese) and stage actress Barbara Rae as Hacklin’s ex-wife, Ruthie. With the help of casting directors Terry Liebling and Scott Rudin (who would go on to earn a Best Picture Oscar for producing No Country for Old Men), Caan filled his supporting cast with then-unknown actors who would become familiar faces in the decades ahead. He cast future L.A. Law star Jill Eikenberry as Ali, Danny Aiello as Tom’s lawyer, Joe Grifasi (Moonstruck, Presumed Innocent) as Tom’s co-worker, and Kenneth MacMillan as the cop who convinces Scolese to turn against his fellow mobsters. Three future co-stars of John Carpenter’s The Thing also played smaller roles: David Clennon as the smarmy government lawyer with the ill-fated sports car, Peter Maloney as the reporter who breaks the case, and Charles Hallahan as a bartender.

Filming began on May 2, 1978, on a $6 million budget. Caan chose to film on location with the bulk of the production shooting at 60 locations in and around Buffalo, with some scenes shot at the sites where the real events took place. The city experienced record low temperatures on the first day of shooting and stayed in the 30s for the first few weeks, not warming up until June. Leonhard, then living in Amherst, New York, was on the set nearly every day, while Sal Martoche (Leonhard’s lawyer) and detective Sam Giambrone advised Aiello and MacMillan on their portrayals. Calabrese, working as an undercover informant, wisely declined to visit the set, although he did advise Viharo over the phone, and the actor listened to taped interviews with the former mobster. The crew filmed in Washington, D.C., for three days in mid-July for the scenes in which Hacklin takes his case to the federal government, and concluded with five days in Albuquerque for the film’s tense and emotional finale.

Caan worked with cinematographer Paul Lohmann (Nashville, Silent Movie, Looker) to give the film a distinctive visual approach, shooting in widescreen and favoring master shots and long takes over more conventional, close-up-driven scene coverage, which put the actor-director in conflict with the studio. As he recalled in a November 2, 1980, Los Angeles Times interview: “They didn’t understand what I was trying to do. Sometimes I’d just come on the set in the morning and see how my actors felt, rather than sit up all night planning the next day’s scenes in detail. The crew loved it, but it confused the studio. They kept saying ‘So-and-so didn’t shoot it this way,’ and ‘Where are the close-ups?’ They were always on me.” To a Marquee Magazine reporter, he elaborated on his style: “I shot this story exactly as I saw it. I stood back a bit, used close-ups only when I felt the audience would want them. Maybe I didn’t give it the conventional treatment or use the normal approach. But I settled on a disciplined plan of putting this story on film and I stuck to it.”

During post-production, Caan divided his time between his work on the film and starring in the movie version of Neil Simon’s autobiographical play Chapter Two, playing the Simon character, a job Caan admitted he took to help make ends meet after going through a divorce. Caan showed a cut of Hide in Plain Sight to his old friend Francis Ford Coppola, who let him continue his post-production work at Coppola’s American Zoetrope studios in San Francisco. Coppola’s assistance led to rumors that the Oscar-winning director re-cut the film himself, which Caan denied: “Sure, he gave me a couple of ideas—but so did the guy who made the coffee. I took advice from everyone. I’m not proud. I showed the film to lots of people—Lelouch and Karel Reisz and Sydney Pollack and Hal Ashby. I solicited as many opinions as possible. It’s the intelligent thing for any movie maker to do.”

Despite the rumors of a Coppola-supervised re-edit, the finished film stuck closely to Eastman’s revised final draft. In fitting with his low-key, naturalistic approach, Caan changed the climactic scenes to make Hacklin less of an action hero and more like the real-life Leonhard. While Caan kept the climactic moment when Hacklin strikes the hit man with a shovel just in time to save Scolese, he dropped the scenes in which Hacklin knocks out the mobster and beats up a federal agent who tries to keep him from leaving with the children. In the finished film, the frustrated Hacklin merely holds up a warning fist to the agents, an image used for the film’s poster, and the agents let him and the children go.

Hide did go through some major personnel changes during post-production. Richard Halsey, an Oscar winner for Rocky, was originally announced as the film’s editor, but the father-son team of Fredric and William Steinkamp (Tootsie, Out of Africa) received the final “Edited by” credit. Michael Small was announced as the film’s composer in March 1979, but Leonard Rosenman ultimately scored the film. The use of a background score was a studio decision that Caan fought: “I didn’t want any music in it. Or hardly any. I wanted it cinema-verité style. I don’t like music to lead my emotions. But they said there had to be music. So there was.” Rosenman recorded a relatively brief score, of which Caan ultimately used only four cues (two of which are source music—tracks 18 and 19), retaining emotional music for Hacklin’s relationship with his children, including the touching finale, while eliminating the more dramatic, suspense-oriented pieces.

Hide in Plain Sight opened at the end of March 1980, nearly two years after it had gone into production. Reviews proved largely positive, including genuine raves from major publications. The supporting cast received excellent notices and Vincent Canby in The New York Times called Caan’s acting “the best work he’s done since The Godfather,” while many of the reviewers were especially impressed by the star’s direction. Canby praised the film’s “remarkable appreciation for time and place,” while Michael Sragow in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner termed it “an uncommonly good first film…unsentimental but compassionate, backed with a sardonic spine and grounded on true grit.” David Ansen in Newsweek suggested that “James Caan has a whole new career ahead of him,” while Richard Schickel in Time claimed “There is not a more satisfactory moment to be seen now on any screen, than Hacklin’s reunion with his children.”

Despite these raves, Hide in Plain Sight never received a wide release, and earned back only a fraction of its budget. Leonhard was pleased with the final product, remarking that “they did a good job showing the average blue collar worker who represents this town, the guy who goes to work, drinks a few beers, goes bowling, plays softball and minds his own business.” Leonhard sued the federal government for $10.5 million for its part in keeping him from his children but ultimately lost the case, and in 1981 the Supreme Court refused to hear his suit.

Thirty years later, Caan has yet to direct another film, and in a 2008 interview with Tony Macklin, he reflected on Hide in Plain Sight. “I’m still very proud of it, but I wasn’t happy for the kids in it. I used everybody that nobody knew. It was one of Jill Eikenberry’s first films. It wasn’t as good for them as it should have been, because they were wonderful in the picture.” Caan also felt the film suffered on home video when the inevitable pan-and-scanning added cuts to scenes originally shot as long takes, but admitted that more practical reasons kept him from returning to the director’s chair: “I just couldn’t afford to do it. I had four wives and five kids. But I would direct again, if I had a passion for something.”

Hide in Plain Sight may have been released at the start of the 1980s but today it feels like a true product of the 1970s—a filmmaking era when directors such as Sidney Lumet, William Friedkin and Martin Scorsese brought a new sense of realism to the urban crime drama. For an actor who never directed before or since, Caan gave the film a surprisingly confident and distinctive visual style, from the ambitious opening crane shot that begins as an overview of a river and ends as a tracking shot following Caan and Grifasi as they leave a factory after the day’s shift, to the quiet but suspenseful finale in Albuquerque. The naturalism of Caan’s directing style and the consistently strong performances of the large cast help counteract some of the liberties the script took with the story, and with the film’s recent release as a DVD-on-demand from the Warner Archive Collection, home video viewers can finally appreciate the film’s widescreen images as Caan originally intended. —