May 31, 2016

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.

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).

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.

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.

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.”


May 26, 2009


In introducing El Dorado at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Andrew Sarris bemoaned  Howard Hawks’ future. He peered silently at the sparse crowd, and declared that the turnout was unsurprising. The recent class he offered on Hawks at Columbia University, he told us, was the least popular of all his auteur courses. Where have all the Hawksians gone? Well, I’m right here, and BAM tried to draw them out in their recently concluded program, “The Late Film”, which screened Red Line 7000 and El Dorado on consecutive nights, a crash course in late Hawks and a lesson about what cultures decide to preserve and forget.

Buried on a double-bill with the youth-baiting Beach Ball,  Hawks’  Red Line 7000 completely tanked upon its release in November of 1965. It quickly disappeared from popular culture’s memory, despite the best efforts of Hawksians like Robin Wood. Production on his follow-up, El Dorado, began in October of the same year, the fastest turnaround between projects in his career (principal shooting on Red Line ended in April of ’65).  This thinly-veiled Rio Bravo remake was a box office hit upon its release in 1967, and has been a staple of cable channels and home video re-packagings ever since (the latest DVDcame out last Tuesday). Red Line 7000 has remained incredibly difficult to see, aside from the ever-present fuzzy bootleg videos.

The forgetting of Red Line 7000 was enabled by Hawks himself, who slagged the film over multiple interviews. In 1971: “I don’t like it.” In 1974: ” I didn’t like it, I thought it was awful.” In 1975: “I think it’s lousy.” His main complaint has to do with the narrative construction, which tries to weave together three different romances:

Just when you get people interested in one story, you jump to another story. Just when they’re interested in that, you jump to another. By that time they’ve forgotten the first one. They’re all mixed up and they say, “The hell with this thing!”

The nominal lead is James Caan as Max Marsh, an ace driver with deep neuroses regarding the purity of his girlfriends. He’s both attracted and repulsed by Marianna Hill as Gabrielle, an uninhibited racing fan who recently broke up with another driver, Dan McCall (James Ward). After their amicable parting, McCall pursues Holly (Gail Hire), a superstitious, mournful type who blames herself for the deaths of her three previous lovers. The third story is more tangential: that of the tomboy daughter of the crew chief (Laura Devon as Julie) in love with the strapping young driver Ned (John Robert Crawford).

Robin Wood called Red Line 7000 “the most underestimated film of the sixties”, partly because of the structure Hawks so derided:

The fact that the Ned/Julie relationship is so little integrated in the main action is not really the structural fault it at first appears. The other two relationships are parallel: in both, a strong, mature partner (Dan, Gaby) helps someone whose development has been arrested (Holly, Mike); the threads of plot continually interweave. The Ned/Julie relationship offers a contrast, and Hawks keeps it separate. Here, both partners are immature.

I believe Hawks and Wood are both right, that the film is both “lousy” and “underestimated”. The structure has interest, as Wood indicates, but it doesn’t have the performers to put life into its motions. Actors are incredibly important to Hawks, as so much of his script is improvised or written on the set with their participation. Without their engagement, his lived-in community of professionals becomes a cold line-up of earnest-sounding mannequins.

Gail Hire is the most embarrassing here, her labored rasp a caricature of Bacall’s rumbling bass in To Have and Have Not. It’s so ridiculous the audience I saw it with broke out into laughter, and I couldn’t blame them. James Ward and John Robert Crawford  are just blond-haired, blue-eyed blanks, showing none of the charisma or camaraderie essential to Hawks’ work. As Todd McCarthy states in his exemplary biography, he “labored to make the story and the actors come alive. Because of his case members’ limited experience, Hawks got much less creative input from them than he normally liked, and he had to deal with burgeoning egos.”

The film only comes alive in the Caan-Hill sequences, which show the combative sparks of his greatest romances. Hill’s insouciant sexuality baffles Caan’s repressed straight-arrow, and their mutual attraction can only be consummated on the race track. In a beautiful sequence where action replaces exposition, their combustible sexuality is revealed when he lets her take a spin around the track. Through his studied direction, she flawlessly takes the turns, until she spins out joyfully at the end, laughing violently. She tells him it was like “taming a lion”. Having to control Caan’s unstable boy is her dangerous task for the rest of the film. Hidden like a pearl for eager auteurists, this scene both confirms Hawks’s directorial hand and stands as a reminder of what the majority of the film was missing.

El Dorado is something else entirely. It has the feel of a valediction, a re-telling of Rio Bravo (1959) that takes aging as it’s central theme. John Wayne returns to the Hawks fold as Cole Thornton, an old gun-for-hire who rejects a job from corrupt landowner Bart Jason (Ed Asner). Robert Mitchum plays the town’s alcoholic sherriff, J.P. Harrah (the Dean Martin role in Rio). James Caan and Arthur Hunnicut round out the group of ragtag heroes, who try to protect the MacDonalds, a local farming family, from the predations of Jason’s acquisitive clan. Mortality is brought to the fore immediately, when Cole shoots down a MacDonald kid out of self-defense. Mortally wounded, the boy kills himself to end the pain. This random act haunts the rest of the film – it leads to the bullet lodged in Cole’s back and in J.P.’s leg, persistent reminders of their physical degradation.

If it is not as perfect as Rio Bravo – one certainly misses the presence of Walter Brennan and Angie Dickinson – for me it is as equally affecting, especially when viewed in the context of Hawks’ and Wayne’s career. As they slowly pirouette through the well-worn jokes one more time (Dry out the drunk, patronize the kid, prod the old coot), it is tinged with sadness – the bullet pressing closer to Cole’s spine with every move. It’s impossible to overstate the grace of John Wayne’s performance here, the hint of grief he exudes when Caan is searching for a gunman, the stoic regret he portrays after he kills the MacDonald kid, and the luxurious slowness in which he moves, whether simply sliding off a horse or leaping off a carriage, he carries the weight of his age with him. It’s a beautiful performance. There’s no grand send-off at the end, just a couple beaten old men, wobbling down the main drag and soaking up every last light of the moon.