This quiet film dramatizes a traumatic circumstance drawn from real life—in the early days of the FBI's Witness Relocation Program, a Buffalo, New York, factory worker suffered unexpected collateral damage when his children disappeared overnight. At the beginning of the story, Frank Hacklin Jr. (James Caan) has a dodgy relationship with his ex-wife, Ruthie (Barbra Rae), who has become romantically involved with a small-time gangster named Jack Scolese (Robert Viharo). Frank tolerates the situation because Ruhie has custody of the two small children she had with Frank, and he deeply loves his kids. Meanwhile, Frank is just beginning a new romance of his own, with a schoolteacher named Alisa (Jill Eikenberry). After Jackie pulls a brazen robbery and gets caught, revealing how little loyalty Jackie’s mob cronies feel for him, slovenly local cop Sam Marzetta (Kenneth McMillan) and uptight federal agent Jason Reid (Josef Sommer) offer a new identity in exchange for testimony. Jackie takes the government’s deal, marries Ruthie, and decamps to parts unknown with the Hacklin kids.
Unfortunately, nobody tells Frank what’s happening, so for a time he doesn’t even know whether his children are alive or dead. Over the course of the movie, Frank battles his way through government red tape with the sincere but useless assistance of attorney Sal Carvello (Danny Aiello) and with unwavering support from Alisa, whom Frank marries. The ordeal stretches on for years, culminating with chases across various state lines once Frank becomes desperate.
Simply because it explores topical subject matter in a soft-spoken style that blends intimacy with righteous indignation, Hide in Plain Sight could easily have been a TV movie. Instead, it not only stars big-screen tough guy Caan but also represents the actor's first and only directorial effort. Caan’s work behind the camera is solid if not necessarily revelatory; one can imagine any number of capable filmmakers taking the material to at least this level of intensity, if not beyond. Therefore, what makes the synthesis of Caan's acting and directing interesting is the degree of restraint that he displays throughout Hide in Plain Sight. For an actor whose style is defined by macho volatility, it's noteworthy that he elected to underplay the bulk of his performance, and that he guided fellow actors toward similar quietude.
That single directorial choice is what saves Hide in Plain Sight from being a issue-of-the week melodrama, since Caan creates an environment that feels like it’s populated by real people doing real things, with real emotional consequences. Could another filmmaker have hit harder? Sure. But could another filmmaker just as easily have made the narrative feel saccharine and trite? Absolutely. So perhaps Caan was exactly the right guy to make this movie. In any event, the reward for throwing his weight behind a meaningful true story is that Hide in Plain Sight is one of Caan’s most admirable films, a small gem nestled inside his impressive filmography.
Hide in Plain Sight: GROOVY