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Steven Spielberg’s post-1980s film career as he juggled big budget box office blockbusters (Jurassic Park) with obvious bids for Academy Award validation (Amistad). It has been the more offbeat films, like Munich (2008) and Catch Me If You Can (2002) that I’ve preferred over the likes of Schindler’s List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). To me, Catch Me If You Can has a looser, more freewheeling feel to it reminiscent of Spielberg’s earlier films, like The Sugarland Express (1974) or Jaws (1975). The film is based on the life of Frank Abagnale Jr., a clever con man who managed to steal millions of dollars during the 1960s and 1970s by convincingly assuming the identity of a Pan American World Airways pilot, a Georgia doctor and a Louisiana lawyer – all before his 19th birthday. He would become the youngest person ever placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. Not only did Catch Me feature a more playful Spielberg, but demonstrated Leonardo DiCaprio’s genuine acting chops – something he hadn’t really done since What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993). The film began a terrific run for the young actor who went on to star in films directed by Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott and Christopher Nolan.
The ‘60s style animated opening credits, accompanied by John Williams’ jazzy, atmospheric score, establish a fantastic retro vibe right from the get-go. It has the look and feel of a vintage Saul Bass credits sequence while anticipating the like-minded opening credits for the also ‘60s-set television show Mad Men. Catch Me If You Can cleverly begins during a T.V. game show To Tell the Truth where the announcer gives us a thumbnail sketch of Frank’s exploits and has us (and the game show audience) guess who is the real Frank out of three men claiming to be him. Of course, it is Leonardo DiCaprio but the irony here is that he’s on a game show where contestants have to guess his identity while the FBI had to do it for real. We flashback to Christmas Eve, 1969 and a sick, disheveled Frank (DiCaprio) is rotting away in a French prison. How did he get here? Why does he look so awful? What is this guy’s story? The film takes us back to 1963 and the beginning of Frank’s story.
He comes from a good home and nice parents – Frank, Sr. (Christopher Walken) and Paula (Nathalie Baye) – that clearly love him and each other. We see the inspiration for Frank’s future endeavors in his father who, early on, impresses his son by using his charisma to convince a sales lady to open a suit store early by concocting a story about an impending funeral. He then has his son pose as his chauffeur in order to impress a bank. That, however, does not work and Frank’s father has to sell their car and their home and move into a smaller one because he owes money to the IRS. And then, one fateful day, Frank’s father opens a bank account for his son and gives him a book of checks thus giving him the means to create his own fortune and his own destiny.
On his first day at school, he’s mistaken for a substitute teacher and goes with it just so he can get revenge on a bully but then continues the charade for an entire week! This incident, and the discovery that his mother is having an affair resulting in his parents getting a divorce, leaves Frank lost and disillusioned as the safe, idyllic existence he once knew is now gone. It is this lack of identity and security that inspires him to pose as other people in successful professions like airplane pilots and doctors. It’s an obvious reaction to his father’s failure to restore his family’s former way of life.
Tom Hanks), an expert at identifying bank fraud and check forgers. He makes it his mission in life to catch Frank after he humiliates him during their first encounter.
Leonardo DiCaprio has a lot of fun adopting Frank’s various personas, including dressing like Sean Connery era James Bond after watching Goldfinger (1964). There is a delicious irony in DiCaprio, arguably the most recognizable movie star on the planet at that time thanks to Titanic (1997), playing a world class liar who jet sets around the world bedding high-class prostitutes and buying expensive suits. However, underneath the suave bravado, DiCaprio hints at a lonely young man looking for a father figure that he unknowingly finds in Carl. During their years-long cat and mouse game they develop a relationship and a mutual respect for one another. The role is a tricky juggling act as DiCaprio has to assume several different identities while revealing the real Frank once in awhile and also hint at his possible motivations.
Tom Hanks tones down his amiable persona to play the prickly Carl Hanratty. He hasn’t played this abrasive a character since the misanthropic stand-up comic in Punchline (1988). He does a good job playing a dogged investigator with a pronounced Boston accent. Carl even displays the same kind of humorless professionalism as a protagonist straight out of a Michael Mann film, albeit with a slightly whimsical spin that is Spielberg’s trademark.
Taking a break from playing the Christopher Walken persona he’s asked to trot out in almost every film he’s done in the last 20 years, the veteran actor is absolutely heartbreaking as Frank’s blindly optimistic father. He shows a range in this film that he hadn’t displayed in years (or since for that matter) and this is particularly evident in a scene where father and son meet over dinner at a posh restaurant. Frank tries to give his father a brand new car in the hopes of impressing his estranged mother but he has to refuse it (the IRS are still investigating him). He tries to reassure his son that he hopes to get back together with his wife but his voice cracks with emotion and he looks to be on the verge of tears. Walken comes off as incredibly sympathetic at this moment and your heart really goes out to his character as we realize that he and his wife will never reconcile.
Jeff Nathanson was given a tape of Abagnale talking about his life by producer Devorah Moos-Hankin. It reminded him of his favorite films that “focus on people who are working on the wrong side of the law; yet you can’t help but root for them because they’re so incredibly charming.” He thought that Abagnale’s life would make a good film. He pitched the project to DreamWorks because they had hired him to do rewrites on several films in the past. With Abagnale’s story, Nathanson saw a character he hadn’t seen in “a long time; Hollywood really stopped making that kind of movie in the ‘70s.” Initially, all he had were some “cool scenes” and “great cons” but it wasn’t until he met the real Abagnale that the script started to take shape. After several interviews with the man, he opened up to Nathanson and talked about his family life and the relationship with his father. He realized that this was the key to the film: “A kid searching for his identity, searching for the love he can’t find in his own house.” This realization helped Nathanson to start structuring the film and also introduce the character of FBI agent Carl Hanratty as a secondary father figure. The screenwriter spent three years rewriting his script. It was during one of these many drafts that Carl was given more of an emphasis and became a central character along with Frank.
Leonardo DiCaprio read Nathanson’s script and was fascinated by this man’s extraordinary life. DreamWorks became involved in 1999 based on Nathanson’s work. In 2000, Gore Verbinski had signed on to direct with DiCaprio starring and with a supporting cast that included Ed Harris, Chloe Sevigny, and James Gandolfini as the FBI agent in pursuit of Frank. However, delays on Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002) stalled the production and Verbinski and most of the cast went on to other projects. In 2001, Lasse Hallstrom was going to direct Catch Me If You Can with filming to start in March 2002. However, he also left the project. By August 2001, Spielberg came on board. He had just come off the dark, paranoid futuristic science fiction film Minority Report (2002) and was looking for something lighter to do. He had always been a fan of films about scam artists and con men and was drawn to Abagnale’s amazing exploits. Tom Hanks read the script and asked Spielberg and DiCaprio if he could be in the film and they quickly agreed. He replaced Gandolfini who had to bow out due to a prior commitment with filming another season of The Sopranos.
It was DiCaprio who first suggested to Spielberg that Christopher Walken play Frank, Sr. To play Paula, the director wanted to cast a French actress. His friend and fellow filmmaker Brian De Palma was living in Paris at the time and Spielberg gave him a copy of the script. He asked for help and De Palma conducted screen tests with several actresses, one of whom was Nathalie Baye who had been in Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973).
Catch Me If You Can was shot in a speedy 56 days utilizing more than 140 sets on locations in and around Los Angeles, New York City, Montreal, Quebec City. Among the many locations used, the production was able to film in the historic TWA Terminal at New York’s JFK airport, which opened in 1962, and was empty when they shot there. At times, cast and crew shot in three locations on a single day. Spielberg did not do very many takes and remarked, “moving so fast kept the momentum going for the entire cast and crew.” DiCaprio concurred: “It was like a theatre group. We were always creating new things and then moving to the next location.”
Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski strove to keep the film’s visual approach very simple: “Let’s create a world that’s slightly idealistic, and not too serious.” The film’s color scheme often mirrored Frank’s emotional arc. His initial, ordinary existence is reflected in a bland, slightly monochromatic look. As Frank’s life gets richer and more successful, the color palette gets more vibrant with striking oranges, yellows, reds and pinks. At the end of the film, when he becomes a part of bureaucracy, the colors go back to being monochromatic in nature.
Legendary composer John William adopted a progressive jazz score in keeping with popular tastes of the 1950s and 1960s. He was influenced by the film music of Henry Mancini who dominated the ‘60s with his “stylish, jazzy approach to films that we now associate with that period so nostalgically.”
Ultimately, all Frank wants is for things to be the way they were when he was younger: his parents still married and living in a nice home. He thinks that by accumulating wealth and projecting a successful image, he can save his father from financial ruin and impress his mother enough so that she’ll take back Frank, Sr. But life doesn’t always work out that way and no matter how many glamorous professions he impersonates or fake checks he writes, is going to make things right. It is this sober reality that makes Catch Me If You Can more than just an entertaining caper film. In some respects, this is a coming-of-age film as we see Frank go from an ambitious teenager to a disillusioned adult. This is also a coming-of-age film for DiCaprio that saw him move on from youthful characters in flights of fancy-type films like Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Titanic, to working with prestige directors like Spielberg on more mature fare that dealt with weighty themes. It is a transition he has made successfully as evident with award-winning films like The Departed (2006) and critically-acclaimed blockbusters like Inception (2010).
Here's a neat little article about the film's stunning opening credits sequence.
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