Catch Me If You Can: Con Life

Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can sounds like a chase movie, with zany opening credits that showcase one of John Williams’ quieter hits, less like his normal dramatic fanfares than the skulking melodies Henry Mancini made for The Pink Panther films. But the great chase films build their situations with breathless exertions and Catch Me If You Can has very little action. The chasing happens off-screen.

As Detective Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) puts it, when he tells the young boy he’s chasing that “the house always wins,” Catch Me If You Can is actually 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, 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 like Frank, the kind of film that’s too absurd to be fake. It assumes you know the story already 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 memoir based on true events. He punks us with its trueness.

Instead, it begins with a rant on the revenue system by down-on-his-luck businessman Frank Sr., played with spunky moral deferment by Christopher Walken. He’s the kind of dad that says he wants his son to be better than him, but what he actually means is that he wants his son to be exactly like him, just more successful at it. He gets his wish – Frank wants to be just like him, turns out just like him, and even makes a good living at it.

When his missus, a French floozy called Paula (Nathalie Baye) that he swept up during the war, cheats on Frank Sr. with a guy wearing a nicer suit and leaves him in a puddle of 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? That’s the moment where the story had to be true, or no one would buy it. Frank puts the con back in confidence.

Detective Hanratty is the only one wise to the act; you get the sense at times that this makes him the worst person Frank ever conned, not the best. Frank is so good at it that only someone who enters a conversation already believing little of him would see through the disguise. Carl starts closing in from the rear with an almost artistic passion – catching Frank has become his life’s work. In their first meeting, Frank convinces him he’s a secret service agent working the same beat. From co-pilot to doctor, from a lawyer in Martin Sheen’s firm 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 his white shirts, which come out pink from mixing with someone else’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 over the warm interior of someone else’s Christmas.

It enunciates the message (if there is one) of Frank’s extravagant “career,” which was both less legal and less excessive than that of Jordon Belfort, DiCaprio’s rechanneling of Frank Abagnale in The Wolf of Wall Street. Spielberg reminds us every in-movie Christmas that for all his supposed charm, the only person Frank can talk to is Detective Hanratty; he conned the world out of money but conned himself out of love. 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” (in every Hanks film, there’s at least one moment where he becomes Woody). The loneliness 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 proclaim through a child’s grin, “Merry Christmas, Carl!” exactly as though Hanks was playing the whole town of Bedford Falls.

Spielberg never made another film with the madcap energy of Catch Me If You Can. His other films "based on a true story" are all mythologized, self-important memoirs. As ungainly and self-pleased as The Post was, Catch Me If You Can is a long, steady jaunt down a spiral staircase. It benefits hugely from DiCaprio, who began his career too young to play the romantic lead in the parts he kept landing. Like Frank, he took that opportunity and convinced us to go along with it by confidently acting like he didn’t know what he was doing. Frank Abagnale Jr. is not the role that thrust him into his dramatic prominence, but it is the one that came most naturally to the years when he didn’t know how to doubt himself. Many would praise, smiling with vicarious awe like Frank Sr., that Frank Jr. conned his way to millions before he was 19. There’s something unavoidably American about that; Frank’s lies are also truths of self-reliance.

The audience may still be asking the same question as Carl as the film ends: how did Frank do it? Maybe 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. I think about the praise garnered by children on talent shows, the idea that they’re so “brave” because they are so young. But the truth is that a child’s confidence, untouched by the expectations and the doubt that living a long time will give you, is less impressive than an adult’s, if they can see through all that self-loathing and find the will to play pretend. Carl Hanratty lives like he couldn’t be anyone else if he tried, while Frank’s poker face is the face of a person who takes no standard set by the adult world more seriously than a dog takes a “Keep Off the Grass” sign. Is there something enviable 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 and ends up overachieving. I guess, for our sakes, someone should have told him that James Bond wasn’t real.

This article is a re-upload from FilmObjective, August 17, 2018

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Warner Bros. Pictures

Cast & Crew

Leave a Reply