A small but sparkling debut as director; Hide in Plain Sight Starring and directed by James Caan

More and more movie stars have been making the switch to directing. The latest is James Caan, who does himself proud in his first effort. Caan himself plays the main character: a worker in Buffalo, N.Y., who earns his living in a tire factory. Once a week he babysits for his children -- while his ex-wife goes out with her boyfriend, a petty crook who gets arrested for robbing a bank.

When this thug turns state's evidence and testifies against his former cronies, the police protect him by spiriting him to another part of the country under a new identity -- and with him go his new wife and children, whom he has acquired to help his image in court.

This leaves our hero back in Buffalo, with no idea of where his children are or how to find them. He turns to the police, but they feel their first responsibility is to protect the secrecy of their "witness relocation" plan. Even though they sympathize with him, they can't help him locate the family that has been whisked from under his nose. He must search for them himself.

It's a poignant story, and Caan tells it with commendable restraint. Under his guidance, the camera is active but subtle, offering an effective visual counterpoint to the involving plot. Caan doesn't go for suspense or sudden surprises, preferring to let the story meander over tis natural course of several months and letting the emotional peaks erupt where they may. There are occasional moments of traditional melodrama, but even these are handled with an unusually careful touch -- and seem perfectly justified, since the film is billed as "a dramatization of a true story."

There is also a fascinating undercurrent to the tale, which takes place in 1967 -- a time of protest and radicalism in the United States. The hero prides himself on being a normal working-class American, respectful of authority and the forces of "law and order." Even he is a bit surprised at his outrage toward "the establishment" when it interferes with his legitimate pursuit of happiness.

But once he has been to court and obtained legal custody of his missing children, he feels justified in defying the entire governmental structure, if need be. And if this means a clenched fist waved in the face of the Justice Department -- as happens in the final scene -- this is a kind of "radicalism" based not on ideologies or belligerence, but on the deepest roots of his own all-too-human nature.

As director of "hide in Plain Sight," Caan coaches solid performances from himself and a good supporting cast. One looks forward to future films made under his watchful eye. His debut effort is a small but sparkling contribution, dealing with the kind of family-oriented subject that is too rarely treated in the American cinema.

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