By Richard Winters
My Rating: 6 out of 10
4-Word Review: Searching for his children.
Thomas Hacklin (James Caan) is a divorced father of two children who has visiting rights to see his kids every weekend. One day when he arrives at his ex-wife Ruthie’s (Barbra Rae) residence he finds the home abandoned and no one around. He eventually learns that her and the kids have been put into the Witness Protection Program due to her remarriage to Jack (Robert Viharo) a gangster who qualified for the program when he became a state’s witness against the mob. Thomas’ efforts to find his kids prove futile and the authorities are no help, but he becomes relentless and hires a lawyer (Danny Aiello) to represent him in court, but even then the odds remain seemingly insurmountable.
The film is based on the novel of the same name by Leslie Waller, which in-turn was based on the actual experiences of Thomas Leonhard who one day in 1967 when he went to pick-up his kids for his weekly visitation found them gone and the house that they had been living in with his ex-wife Rochelle to have been abandoned. This then precipitated an 8-year crusade by Thomas to get them back, which proved to be a landmark legal battle, but on July 4, 1975 he was eventually reunited. The film though changed several things from the true story including adding in a subplot where Thomas gets followed by the mob and eventually leads to a violent confrontation. It also compresses the time span from 8 years to 18 months.
While I enjoyed the movie more than when I first saw it over 10 years ago the issues that I had with it during the first viewing remained the same. Most of it had to do with Caan’s, in this the only film that he directed, non-use of close-ups, which the studio heads complained about during the production. A good example of this is when Thomas and ex-wife are arguing on a public sidewalk the camera does not move-in, like in most movies, to allow us to hear what they’re saying, but instead pulls back, so they go further away, but what’s the point of seeing characters on the screen argue if we can’t hear what it’s about? Another scene has Thomas arriving at his ex-wife’s abandoned home, but instead of having the camera go inside with him as he enters it, it remains outside and then tracks around the home to the back door, which Thomas is seen leaving. This though lessens the impact as having the viewer visually witness the suddenly empty house would’ve been far more dramatic.
I did though like that many of the scenes were shot in Buffalo at the exact locations where the real-life incidents happened. The film reconstructs the look and feel of the 60’s quite nicely and many of the participants from the actual events coached the actors on how to perform their roles accurately. The acting is impressive especially by Viharo who’s mafia mobster caricature is right on-target. Kenneth McMillan is quite entertaining as a police detective who initially impedes Thomas’ efforts, but eventually has a change-of-heart. As with any great character actor, which McMillan clearly is, it’s what they add to the part that makes it interesting and here it’s his excessive eating with virtually each scene he’s in has him stuffing his face though I wondered how many takes were required to do each scene and if he ultimately overate and got himself sick while performing the role.
I was annoyed though with how certain fictional things that got added-in like Thomas’ dealings with the mob got played-down instead of up. The original script by Spencer Eastman called for a lengthy car chase and violent fist-fight, but Caan chose to take the subtle route making these moments less tension filled and possibly too slow and uneventful for some people to sit through. I was also amused how the actual reunion between the father and kids was different from the one in the movie where it’s portrayed as being a happy one. In real-life the kids disliked their father’s rules and ended up moving back with their mother showing how ironic life can be where you fight hard for something and then when you finally get it it ends up not being as great as you thought it would be.
My Rating: 5 out of 10
Released: March 21, 1980
Runtime: 1 Hour 32 Minutes
Director: James Caan
Available: DVD-R (Warner Archive Collection), Amazon Video