Catch Me If You Can

Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can certainly sounds like a chase movie, with zany opening credits that showcase what would be one of John Williams’ quieter hits (for once he emulates not his own operas but the skulking melodies Henry Mancini made for The Pink Panther films). But the great chase films expound on their situations with breathless exertions, climbing ascending arcs of comedic absurdity (Keaton’s The General) or numbing paranoia (Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, or any of his “you’ve got the wrong man” films). By contrast, Catch Me If You Can has very little sequential action. Everyone’s always got the right man. The chasing usually occurs off-screen. So what kind of film is it?

Detective Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) gives us the answer with a cliché. When he tells the young boy he’s chasing that “the house always wins,” he’s enunciating Spielberg’s whole psychological profile going into Catch Me If You Can. Its heart is not a chase but a gambling movie. It’s about that boy, named Frank William Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio), staring the world down by always seeming like he knows what he’s doing, even and especially when he acts like he doesn’t. When he’s pretending to be a doctor, for instance, he doesn’t act out grand illusions, but talks to his attending staff like he’s quizzing them for the right answers. As a young co-pilot, he asks with easy sureness where he’s supposed to sit. “It’s been a while,” he says. No one doubts that he’s genuine because why would a boy pretending to be a pilot ask where he should sit? “People only know what you tell them,” he tells us.

Spielberg’s movie is just like Frank, the kind of film that’s too absurd to be fake. So it assumes you know the story and starts at the end, with Frank already in Hanratty’s custody. With the suspense of the chase blown, Spielberg sets up a dramatic con without the pretense that you’re wondering what will happen in a story adapted from a real and well-known memoir based on true events. He punks us with its trueness.

Instead, it begins with a brazen reproach of the revenue system in the form of down-on-his-luck businessman Frank Sr., played with a kind of moral deferment by wily Christopher Walken. He’s the kind of hero-dad that doesn’t really have to do anything for his son but smile. Frank wants to be just like him, and essentially is. He’s just better at it.

When his missus, a French floozy called Paula (Nathalie Baye) that he swept up during the war, cheats on him with a nicer suit and leaves Frank Sr. out to dry in his own malcontent, Frank Jr. leaves home. If he was good at playing an instrument, he might have taken to the streets with an upturned hat. But what he plays is other people’s expectations. In an early scene, he adapts to his new school by assuming the role of substitute teacher with such an easy grace that no one dares doubt him. He gives class lectures. He schedules parent-teacher conferences and field trips. Now that he’s lost in the world, what better nourishment for a budding con than a multi-million dollar fraud on the payroll services at Pan-Am Airlines? Frank puts the con back in confidence.

Detective Hanratty is the only one wise to the act. He starts closing in from the rear with an almost artistic passion, like catching Frank has become his life’s work. In their first meeting, Frank amusingly convinces him that he’s a secret service agent working the same beat. From co-pilot to doctor, from lawyer beside Martin Sheen to his daughter’s (Amy Adams) fiancé, Frank runs the circuit of careers everyone wants to be when they grow up, short of joining NASA. His life ascends in glamor as he cons his way to houses, hookers, and local fame while Hanratty waits in a public laundromat for a load of white shirts turned pink by someone’s red pajamas. That duality returns in tragic reverse when Frank presses his nose against a cold window while Judy Garland’s “Embraceable You” plays on the warm inside.

It enunciates the message (if there is one) to Frank’s extravagant “career.” Of all things, he was a con first in love, though he had affection for his pearly-toothed father and at one point was even engaged to be married. Spielberg reminds us every in-movie Christmas that for all his supposed charm, the only one Frank can talk to is Detective Hanratty. On realizing this, Hanks has one of his yee-haw outbursts in the graveyard gloom of the precinct he’s working on Christmas Eve “to give the guys with families a chance at a merry Christmas.” It hurts Frank at first, but later he’s so frayed by the chase movie we haven’t been watching that the sight of Detective Hanratty has him throw his arms wide and through a guileless grin proclaim, “Merry Christmas, Carl!” exactly as though Hanks was playing the whole town of Bedford Falls.

In Titanic and The Aviator, DiCaprio was too young for the prestige handed him by opportunity, but like Frank he took that opportunity and convinced us by confidently acting like he didn’t know what he was doing. Frank Abagnale Jr. is not a role that would thrust him into his dramatic prominence, but it is the one that comes most naturally to the years when he didn’t know how to doubt himself. Many would praise with Frank Sr.’s vicarious awe that Frank Jr. conned his way to millions before he was 19. But perhaps it was his youth that gave him the edge over the world, that made him concoct these psychological fantasies for everyone he talked to. If he had been an adult, he might have doubted the world too much. His poker face is the face of a person who takes no standard set by the petty adult world with more gravity than a dog takes a “Keep Off the Grass” sign. Isn’t there something we can all envy in that? No film has ever glorified crime with more grace than Spielberg’s Christmastime ode to a kid that just wants to be James Bond. He ends up being quite the overachiever on that. I guess for our sakes someone should have told him that James Bond wasn’t real.


Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Steven Spielberg

Jeff Nathanson


Frank Abagnale, Jr. Leonardo DiCaprio
Carl Hanratty Tom Hanks
Frank Abagnale, Sr. Christopher Walken
Paula Abagnale Nathalie Baye
Brenda Strong Amy Adams
Roger Strong Martin Sheen
Jack Barnes James Brolin

Official Trailer


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