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.
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.
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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