Spielberg: Catch Me If You Can part 2

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Act I of Catch Me If You Can tells the story of the dissolution of Frank Abagnale’s family. Act II will present to him a unique strategy for putting his family back together. Like many of my favorites acts of Spielberg’s work, it is what I call a "process" sequence: we simply observe the process by which a character sets about doing something dynamic and unusual — getting inside a securely protected government facility, setting up an enamelware factory in wartime Krakow with little money, figuring out how to decode and employ the Headpiece of the Staff of Ra. These are often the most exciting passages in Spielberg’s work, as the protagonist is learning to do something new and interesting. It’s as new to us as it is to the protagonist, and Spielberg never fails to get that across.

In the case of Catch Me If You Can, the protagonist’s task is "How do I, a sixteen-year-old boy, survive in the harsh, harsh world?" What he ends up with, surprisingly even to him, is more than a survival scheme — it is a way to possibly save his family from ruin.

But Spielberg starts the act, as he started Act I, with a flash-forward to 1969, with long-haired, grumpy Frank in antagonist Hanratty’s custody on the way home from France — again, reminding us that Frank’s life is going to get worse before it gets better (and we know it’s going to get better, since he eventually appears on To Tell the Truth), but also to signal the start of a new act — which is handy, since Catch Me If You Can is Spielberg’s most complicated script, with many different ups and downs to its protagonist’s story. (When people complain about it being "too long," this is what they’re talking about — once a narrative begins to stretch beyond three acts, the audience starts to feel like something is wrong, or unfocused. That’s why people felt weird about Minority Report‘s 4-and-a-half acts, and about No Country For Old Men‘s fourth act, especially after its third act climaxed with the death of the only character we liked.) Spielberg will announce each act break of Catch Me If You Can by checking in with Frank’s trip back to the US with Hanratty. (I’d like to know if the script was written that way, or if the structure is something that happened in editing.)

First, we see that homeless teen Frank is bouncing checks to SRO hotels to get by, but then he has his "Aha" moment — he sees an airplane pilot walking down the street with a pair of cuties, stopping to pat the head of an adoring little girl. The pilot, Frank sees, is walking, breathing Authority — everyone looks up to him, everyone admires him, he’s a stud and a father-figure — he’s a man’s man. He sees a mannequin wearing a pilot’s uniform, and the bulb goes off in his head. Authority, Frank believes, is an empty suit; people have authority because everyone agrees they do, not because of any inner merit or qualifications. To a scam artist, everything is a scam, and to a boy whose family has been destroyed by Authority, what better revenge could there be than stealing money from the banks who shamed his father, while posing as one of "them?"

(One of my well-informed readers mentioned yesterday that there is a slight autobiographical aspect to Catch: Spielberg, in his youth, when he was Frank’s age actually, put on a suit and pretended to be an executive, to sneak onto the Universal lot. This, I think, was Spielberg’s "way in" to the story of Catch, but I’m hesitant to place too much autobiographical weight on it. On the other hand, I actually happened to read the book Catch is based on when it came out in 1980, and I was surprised at how much of the movie dwelled on Frank’s adventures as a fake airline pilot, which was a comparatively small part of his astonishing adventures. But then, it makes perfect sense — Spielberg has a very special place in his heart for airplanes, and for flight in general. A pilot is a symbol of freedom, sometimes, as in Empire, Always and Ryan literally so.)

One thing leads to another, and Frank learns how to pass bad checks by posing as a Pan Am pilot, with his stated goal being to defraud the banks of enough money to bring his mother back to his father.

At 42:00, we are properly introduced to Carl Hanratty, the Javaert-like investigator who will, of course become Frank’s antagonist. Hanratty, we see, has his own problems with Authority — he can’t get anyone at the FBI to listen to his theories about bank fraud. His co-workers nod and doze at his lectures and he is regarded by them as a joke. So Hanratty and Frank, like all good antagonists and protagonists, occupy opposing viewpoints on the movies themes of merit and bedazzlement — Hanratty is all merit and no bedazzlement, and Frank is at the opposite pole.

Frank, now posing as an airline pilot, meets his father and gives his first try at getting his family back together. Frank Sr, although proud of his son’s "success," sees right through him. (Chris Walken, always a wonderful actor, is just astonishing in this picture, and this is his best scene. The layers of affection, chagrin, scorn, pride and wisdom he brings to the scene are quite impressive indeed.)

At 49:00, the point-of-view suddenly shifts to Hanratty again, as we see him in his first attempt to track down Frank in Hollywood. He’s been given two assistants to work with him, a couple of zeroes who possess neither merit nor bedazzlement. Hanratty corners Frank in his motel room, but Frank turns the tables by posing as agent of the State Department. He gathers his forging equipment as "evidence" and high-tails it out of the room. Hanratty looks through Frank’s wallet and finds it full of nothing but labels peeled off soda bottles. And, well, what is really in all our wallets, after all, but a series of labels? Each piece of I.D., each bank card, each membership card, is a label, a "brand" as it were, identifying the bearer as this or that kind of person.

Frank, spurned by his father and officially on the run from the FBI, would seem to enter into a new "act" at this point, but Act II climaxes with an odd little beat I call "The Bond Interlude." Frank goes to see Goldfinger, then gets himself a suit, and a car, identical to James Bond’s. He tries them out at his hotel, putting the moves on a young woman he happens upon in the hallway. He gets her into his room and finds out, too late, that she is actually a high-priced call-girl. (In the hall, he identifies her as a minor celebrity; the fact that she now makes a living as a call-girl marks her as one more fake taken prisoner by the high price of the American Dream.)

As Frank manages to out-fox the call-girl and "become a man," one bedazzler out-bedazzling another, we see Hanratty dealing with his laundry in a crummy public landromat, doomed to a life of merit.

The act ends with Frank calling Hanratty on Christmas Eve and taunting him, rubbing his bedazzling powers in Hanratty’s merit-constrained face. He will do so again at the end of Act III, and they will cross paths again on Christmas Eve at the end of Act IV. These hook-ups keep the protagonist in contact with his antagonist, but also point to the developing nature of Frank’s relationship with Hanratty. Spurned by his own father, Frank will eventually come to see Hanratty as a surrogate. In his life as a fake, Hanratty is the only one who knows who he really is.


11 Responses to “Spielberg: Catch Me If You Can part 2”
  1. laminator_x says:

    Frank looking to Hanratty for approval is one of the neat ways this film turns some dramatic conventions on their head.

    In a work full of rubes and marks, he thinks that only Hanratty can really appreciate what he has accomplished.

    Frank is behaving the same way that a cliche villain does when he brags about his awesome scheme to the hero and tells him that they’re not so different.

  2. johnnycrulez says:

    I always get a kick out of Frank’s comic book names when he is lying to people. His imagined life is just an amalgam of the fantasy stories he lived as a kid.

  3. stormwyvern says:

    Though it’s probably not exclusive to them, not surprisingly there seem to be more than a few directors who were born sometime in the 1940s who seem to have a near worshipful regard for the magic of flight. Just look (as I hope you have) at how Hayao Miyazaki treats it in his films, giving equal reverence to flight technology and natural flight.

    It’s kind of strange how Frank’s mother has been reduced to the level of “commodity” in Frank’s eyes. It’s been a while since I saw the film (but I have seen it, so I’m probably better able to discuss it than those films I haven’t seen), but I don’t recall that Frank has much concern about his mother’s perspective on the breakup or any doubt that she will come back to his father if there’s enough money. It’s not a totally unfair characterization, as there is a pretty obvious correlation between Frank Sr’s finances failing and Frank’s mother starting to cheat on her husband. I kind of wonder if Frank would even care about getting his parents back together if he didn’t see his mother’s return as crucial to fixing his family or if his father didn’t love her so genuinely.

    My memery of Frank’s conversation with his father is a little shaky, so this may make no sense, but I kind of wonder if Frank gets rebuffed by his father partly because he’s suggesting that his mother would come back if there was just enough money and Frank Sr either thinks Frank Jr. is being naive about the causes of the breakout or realizes on some level that Frank Jr. is exactly right about why his mother left, but Frank Sr. doesn’t want to admit that the wife he may well still love is actually such a shallow person.

    The opening credits were mentioned in the comments for Part One and I fell like they should be mentioned again. While the story works perfectly well without them, as most films do, how many films today can boast titles and opening theme music that are not only incredibly stylish, but also do so much to introduce the audience to the films concept, tone, themes, and even era?

    • memento_mori says:

      I really wish there were Academy Awards for opening titles and for stunt people.

    • Todd says:

      I think Frank genuinely loves his mother, but, as you mention, he is woefully naive about the causes of his parents’ breakup. I don’t think he’s thinking “If money is what she wants, I’ll make money,” although that does tie into his experience with the call-girl, and it is played out in the inverse in Act IV.

      As for the titles, Spielberg is, as you say, trying to evoke a certain era of mid-60s movies, when title sequences were given a lot more weight — and budget. I should do a list of my favorite titles sequences — the one from Seven would be in the top 10.

      • stormwyvern says:

        I’d be very interested to see that. And title sequences take a lot less time to analyze than whole films, so you could probably do the whole thing in one post.

  4. robjmiller says:

    Becoming a man on a plane

    Maybe I don’t remember the film perfectly, but didn’t the “becoming a man” bit happen earlier when he picked up a stewardess on his first flight impersonating a pilot? Therefore, his transition to manhood coincides with his first big test in his new profession.

    Also, your mention of Spielberg’s plane obsession struck me because I hadn’t noticed it before. Flight seems to be a common theme in Spielberg films and usually plays an important part in major scenes: the bike-flight of E.T., countless scenes in Empire of the Sun, Indiana Jones’ numerous great air sequences (the original snakes on a plane, “No ticket.”, etc), being able to fly as a defining characteristic in Hook, The Terminal (I haven’t actually seen this one, but it’s set in an airport), and probably more that I can’t think of off the top of my head.

    And while Catch Me If You Can may include Christopher Walken’s best acting, his best scene is still the watch monologue in Pulp Fiction.

    • Todd says:

      Re: Becoming a man on a plane

      You are correct — Frank gets laid right off the bat on his first scammed flight — I had forgotten.

      As for Spielberg’s obsession with airplanes, don’t forget Donna Stratton in 1941: she takes it to extremes, being able to achieve orgasm only while in flight. It’s a shame Spielberg didn’t direct The Aviator.

  5. quitwriting says:

    You keep mentioning how important flight is in this movie, and I keep going back to DiCaprio in The Aviator, a Scorsese film. For some reason The Aviator reminds me strongly of a Spielberg work, which is odd because I’ve never before confused Scorsese with Spielberg in terms of directorial style.

    One of the most striking things I remember about Catch, being as I haven’t seen it since it came out on cable TV (HBO or Showtime), is how much the film’s coloring and shots started to become warmer and more comfy towards the end. In the final scenes between Hanratty and Frank, especially where he’s being arrested in Europe, I remember the scene feeling warm and friendly, like a family reunion. I felt like the very last scenes where they’re cutting away from Frank and Hanratty in the FBI were cold and austere by comparison. Kind of off-putting.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Becoming a Man

    Spielberg does a funny thing with the transitions in the two sex scenes. The first time Frank picks up the stewardess in his first Deadheader flight, the movie transitions to the sound of furious bedroom thumping (and visual room service table shaking) as we get to see the sex scene. The next time Frank picks up the 1k-a-night hooker, the movie transitions to the same furious thumping sounds, but this time it turns out to be Hanratty’s laundry.

    I’m looking for a comparison here to make between Hanratty’s laundry being ruined and Frank being soiled by his encounter with the call girl, but if anything was intended, it’s not quite jelling for me.

    But I do think the moment with the call girl is indeed the moment Frank becomes a man — at least the moment he completes the more cynical transformation into the con man he is becoming in this act. The first sex scene leaves Frank still an innocent, even to the point of remarking on what a great date this is (and then gets an odd look from the more worldly stewardess, who clearly knows this is something less than a real date). But with the call girl Frank finds a way to be the one to get paid, cheating the woman at her own game, and solidifying that he is in all ways the con man grown now.

    Bill Willingham

    • Todd says:

      Re: Becoming a Man

      The sex/laundry transition is intentional only because of the contrast it shows between the protagonist and antagonist, one of whom is banging a $1000-a-night call girl (and turning a $400 profit on the deal) and the other of whom is spending his night having his shirts ruined by a little red sweater.