Catch Me If You Can

I saw Steven Spielberg’s new movie, Catch

Me If You Can, last night. Today, I went back and watched it again.

I never do that. It’s a fantastic film, I urge you to see it, and I urge you

to take it seriously. Yes, it’s a light comedy. But it’s also a master class

in filmmaking, and I sincerely hope that Spielberg will be the first director

since Billy Wilder to force Hollywood to give comic films the critical attention

they deserve. 2002 was not a great year for films, I’m afraid, and Catch

Me If You Can stands out as one of the very few which is both popular and


It’s superlative from the opening sequence on. The titles, by, I think, Kuntzel

and Degas, are magisterial: this is one of the best title sequences in years.

They do a fantastic job of evoking the 1960s and encapsulating the whole story

of the film to come, all to the accompaniment of a self-contained piece of music

by John Williams. They’re much more than an homage to Saul Bass: they’re a genuine

overture. (Note the absence of a pre-credit sequence: these titles alone are

enough to grab your attention.)

Since I’ve mentioned John Williams already, I might as well say right now that

he’s done an amazing job on the score of this movie. It’s light but strong,

catchy yet unobtrusive, and, as the final credits roll, Williams even starts tipping the

hat to Aaron Copeland. It’s a great piece of American composing – and

it really pains me to say this, as I make it a point of hating John Williams

and all his works, which are usually derivative and overblown.

Catch Me If You Can also has finally managed to break the First Law

of Tom Hanks: that he’s never appeared in a really good movie. He’s not great

in this – he just about does what’s asked of him, that’s it – but

finally I’ve found a Tom Hanks film I can actually really like.

That said, Hanks is acted off the screen by an excellent cast. Leonardo DiCaprio

leads with a performance of wit and subtlety, ably supported by Christopher

Walken (who’s just Christopher Walken, really, I’m not sure where all the superlatives

for his performance came from, unless it’s simply shock that he should ever

play a character with all-too-visible weaknesses) and some wonderful cameos.

The two which really stick in the memory are Jennifer Garner as an opportunistic

model-turned-hooker and, most wonderfully, Martin Sheen as a southern lawyer

with seemingly twice as many teeth as the average man, and impeccable comic


The lion’s share of the credit, however, must surely go to Spielberg. It is

he who has really pulled off the directorial juggling tricks required: keeping

the action moving while developing the characters, wowing us with the production

design while at the same time spinning a gripping yarn. Most of all, he manages

to keep DiCaprio’s character both sophisticated con-man and naive boy at the

same time: someone who, when he phones the FBI to taunt them, does

so with a glass of milk by his side.

DiCaprio plays Frank Abagnale Jr, whom we first see suffering in a hideous

French lock-up, but who not much later is back to the final glory day of his

youth, watching his father (Walken) collect some meaningless gong from the New

Rochelle Rotarians. As Frank Sr goes up to recieve his award, his son manages

to pull the label, whole, from one of the bottles on the table in front of him,

and allows himself the briefest of self-congratulatory smiles. The moment is

caught en passant by Spielberg’s camera – the father is the center

of the action – but in that smile, in Frank’s pleasure at pulling something

off, the next three years of his life are presaged.

Labels torn from bottles become something of a recurring motif for the rest

of the film: it’s as though Frank is obsessed with possessing them, being able

to switch from brand to brand whenever he likes. His wallet contains nothing

but labels, his life is little but a successful exercise in making people miss

the boy for the label with which he presents himself (pilot, physician, lawyer).

As we’re told twice in the film, once by Frank Sr and once by Frank Jr, the

Yankees keep on winning the World Series not because of Mickey Mantle, but because

their opponents can’t take their eyes off the pinstripes.

When Frank Sr falls on hard times, his son gets sent to public school, and

quickly demonstrates his quick wit, sharp eye for detail, and general ballsiness.

After being bullied before even getting to his first class, he quickly takes

over French lessons, deciding that being a subsitute teacher has got to be a

better life than being a bullied kid. The scene where the headmaster sorrowfully

explains to Frank’s parents that their son has just called a parent-teacher

meeting to plan a school outing to the local baguette factory is a masterpiece

of comic filmmaking: for all the solemnity on screen, everybody in the cinema

is in stitches. But the real genius is the way in which Spielberg cuts back

and forth from the headmaster’s office to DiCaprio, outside it, advising one

of the girls at school that she should really fold that note from her mother

if she doesn’t want to be found out as a fraud. In the very next scene, he espies

a pin on a couch which shouldn’t be there: Spielberg is showing us Frank’s acuity in the most unobtrusive way, weaving it in to the rest of the plot.

When his parents divorce, Frank runs away from home, and has something of a

Damascene conversion on the street outside a hotel when he’s been turned away

from yet another bank where he’s tried to kite a bad cheque. A shaft of sunlight

suddenly illuminates the side of his face, and in a glow of pure slow-motion

1960s joyousness, a pilot leads his gaggle of giggling stewardesses through

adulatory throngs and on to the reception desk. It’s not long before the very

same bank manager who turned Frank away just a scene earlier is eagerly shaking

his hand, awed by his purloined pilot’s uniform.

This is a movie full of uniforms, not only of pilots but of nurses and stewardesses

too, and even of FBI g-men. The latter, true to type, wear black suits, white shirts, black

ties, and black hats. The production design is a dream: the 60s in all their

glory, with no sign of the counterculture or even of rock ‘n’ roll. Eero Saarinen’s

TWA terminal in New York has a starring role, along with countless co-eds in

tight sweaters. It’s all very 50s-innocent, for all that our hero is jetting

around the world cashing millions of dollars in bad cheques.

Even the FBI is not spared the rose-tinted spectacles: for comic relief, most

of its employees are bungling idiots, and even Tom Hanks, the agent who finally

catches his man, has to endure more than his fair share of flashing-his-ID-backwards

and seeing his shirts stained pink in the launderette by a misplaced red top.

All the same, however, Spielberg does manage to imbue Hanks with a certain

amount of fatherly gravitas: when Frank Jr loses Frank Sr, he also gains a new

father-figure in the shape of the cop who caught him and who is going to spend

the next four years trying to get him out of the jail he put him in to. Both

Hanks and Walken are divorced men who still wear their wedding rings: the symmetry

is almost too pat, but it’s done artfully enough that it barely registers

consciously the first time around.

There are some lovely Spielberg touches in this film, not least the scene where

the FBI raids Frank’s Atlanta apartment. A gun, looking like nothing so much

as a sea-horse, enters the screen from the left, silhouetted against the swimming

pool in the background. Another follows it, and then a third cuts across from

the right: it’s a truly beautiful shot. There’s another when DiCaprio is caught red-handed printing blank cheques, and he stands in his wifebeater with the evidence of his crime fluttering down all around him, even landing on top of his head. And Spielberg can swing from comedy

to pathos in an eyeblink, too: when Frank is running away from the FBI for the

last time, he has to leave his fiancée, who still considers him to be

a doctor and a lawyer. When he comes clean to her, her first reaction

– "you’re not a Lutheran?" – draws a laugh; her second

("why would you lie to me?") draws sympathy.

Spielberg is also lucky (or clever) enough to have the services of Janusz Kaminski

as cinematographer, who turns the film into a sunny delight without ever making

it sickly or camp á la Far From Heaven.

Friedrich, over at 2Blowhards, says

that Catch Me If You Can could be Spielberg’s best-ever film. It’s

up against some very stiff competition, but I’m inclined to agree. It’s certainly

better than his other film this year, Minority

Report, and is also better than the last film for which he won an Oscar,

Saving Private Ryan. I hope that this film gets a nomination too: not

only because it’s so good, but also because comedies in general, and light comedies

in particular, deserve better treatment from the drama-obsessed Academy. There

could be no better way to remember Billy Wilder.

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