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.