Spielberg: Catch Me If You Can part 3

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In Act I of Catch Me If You Can, Frank Abagnale’s family is destroyed by Authority. In Act II, Frank devises what he thinks is a workable solution to repair his family and strike back at Authority at the same time. Unfortunately, his efforts are rejected by his father, and his antagonist is now hot on his trail. In Act III, Frank will try to use his new-found abilities to join a new family, and take a step toward maturity at the same time.

As the act begins, we see antagonist Hanratty pursuing leads with his useless assistants. He comes to Frank’s mother, who is now married to Frank Sr’s more-successful friend from the Rotary. We see that Hanratty’s assistants, in contrast to Hanratty, have no merit to their careers — they’re salarymen who have lucked into government positions that grant them a modicum of authority and don’t require any special effort. As Hanratty questions Frank’s mother, one of his assistants is more intent on getting at the snacks that the mother has put out for them. Despite his assistants’ incompetence, Hanratty leaves the meeting with a name — now he knows who Frank is.

Meanwhile, Frank has his own burdens — his bachelor life is besieged with freeloaders and party-goers who spill drinks on his nice rug and fiddle with his expensive hi-fi system. Frank is clearly peeved at these folks, who he sees as living off his hard-earned lifestyle. It seems to Frank that it is time to "settle down." Frank’s version of this is to get a job at a hospital, as a doctor, bed a sweet young nurse who works there, and pass himself off as not just a doctor but a lawyer as well to the girl’s father. Clearly, Frank understands that a big lie is much easier to sell than a small one.

And so, after cutting his teeth on impersonating an airplane pilot, an occupation that symbolizes freedom, he now moves into impersonating both a doctor and a lawyer, the two most "authoritative" professions our culture has. It’s one thing to put on a uniform and cadge free flights around the world, now Frank is saying that doctors and lawyers have no special knowledge, that they are as much empty suits as pilots are. Of course, Frank never has to actually heal the sick or prosecute a case — his "authority" allows him to leaves those things to other people.

(There’s a scene where Frank is called upon to treat an injured boy, which he deals with by delegating the job to other personnel. The scene begins with a closeup of his office door, which has a nameplate — a label — reading "Frank Connor, M.D." After his near-miss with medicine, Frank ducks into a closet to vomit, and the last shot of the scene is the door closing with another nameplate, "Janitor’s Closet." The point being that Frank, a teenager, is qualified for neither position.)

Hanratty goes to see Frank Sr, who won’t give up Frank, but Hanratty finds Frank’s address in the apartment anyway. Now he knows where Frank lives.

Or lived, anyway, because Frank is gone now and on his way to winning the hand of his giggly young nurse, Brenda. He goes to dinner with her whole family and uses his father’s "two mice" story as Grace. Spielberg draws out the suspense of "Does Brenda’s father see through Frank or not?" before finally giving Frank what he’s looking for — a home, a wife of his own, a family. It’s only when Brenda’s family gathers around the TV to Sing Along With Mitch that Frank begins to realize that this is not his family, that his admittance to this family is just another subterfuge, that love and acceptance in this family will not actually give him what he needs.

He goes to see his father again, and is shocked to find that he has lost his business and is now working for the government, in the post office. This is the ultimate failure for Frank, and the moment when he realizes that, of the two mice, his father is the first mouse, not the second. His father is sinking before his eyes, and contentedly so, a shattered man. Frank insists that it’s not too late, that he can still, even now, with enough money, power and respectability, get back everything "they" took from his father. When Frank Sr chastises him for all his fraud, Frank says "Then ask me to stop!" Frank Sr responds by saying "You can’t stop," and again, the levels of Frank Sr’s fatherly response are many: he is proud of his son for beating the system, ashamed of him for breaking the law to do it, impatient with his naivety and amused by his indomitable spirit.

Christmas rolls around and Frank calls Hanratty again, telling him, essentially, that he will go straight if Hanratty stops chasing him. Hanratty turns the tables on Frank, telling him that he calls the FBI on Christmas because his relationship with the FBI is the only thing in Frank’s life that is real. As the movie goes on, we will see the eventual terminus of that revelation.

The second Christmas call arrives at 1:36:00, exactly a half-hour from the first one. Ordinarily, that would mark the second Christmas call as the end of Act III, but there is clearly much more to happen with Frank’s attempt to join a "real family." In short order, Hanratty tracks Frank down to Brenda’s home and crashes their engagement party. In the very moment of his rise to legitimacy, Frank must make a desperate confession to Brenda, arrange to meet her in Miami for an elopement, flee out the window with suitcases full of cash, go to meet her in Miami, find that she has sold him out and arrange to escape once again, with the help of a passel of stewardesses, once again eluding Hanratty’s grasp. The FBI-at-the-party sequence makes a natural act break, but leaves the question of Brenda dangling. Then, Brenda’s betrayal of Frank in Miami would seem, again, to be a natural act break, but the movie is not about Frank’s relationship with Brenda, it’s about his relationship with Hanratty. So we must watch Frank put together and execute his "stewardesses-as-pinstripes" ruse before the act actually ends at 1:49:00.

That makes Act III 42 minutes long, which is an average act-length for most movies, but for Spielberg feels long, especially since the first two acts of Catch are 29:00 and 38:00, respectively. This is a very unusual structure for Spielberg, creating acts that get longer as the movie goes on, and the movie has more surprises yet in store for the viewer — another Christmas encounter a mere seven minutes later, jail for Frank, a new life, new resentment and two more attempts at escape. This seemingly endless cascade of climaxes and confrontations can make Catch feel "too long" for some viewers, and, at well over two hours, it is long — for a comedy, anyway. Which only tells me that Spielberg does not see the movie as a comedy, but as a coming of age story, much like the similarly-oddly-structured Empire of the Sun.


3 Responses to “Spielberg: Catch Me If You Can part 3”
  1. Catch Me if You Can is one of my favorite movies. I think it’s been sort of forgotten, much like The Terminal, which I thought was sweet, but not great.

    I found one of those model Pan Am airplanes at an antique store one day and couldn’t resist picking it up. It has the identical sticker on it and everything.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I like how Spielberg’s delightfully nerdy TV-viewing habits tend to bleed into his casting. You could tell he was watching “Alias” and “Angel” while making this film, since he cast Jennifer Garner from the former show as the con woman and, in a cameo as one of the stewardesses Frank recruits, Amy Acker from the latter.

    — N.A.

    • Todd says:

      Spielberg’s TV viewing may influence his casting, but maybe not: he’s famously spotty in his viewing habits. When he cast Teri Garr in Close Encounters, he had never seen Young Frankenstein.