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No One Else To Call

From here, Catch Me If You Can almost never sits still. It’s a character movie that moves like an action movie, with Frank inhabiting one life after the next. He poses as an airline pilot, something that seems harmless enough until he’s forced to serve as a co-pilot during an actual flight. He then poses as a doctor, another gig that he thinks will be harmless until he’s forced to offer advice on people who are really injured. He starts posing as a lawyer, and attempts to settle down with a really nice girl (a scene-stealing Amy Adams, decked-out in comical braces). This, too, backfires, no doubt devastating the nice girl in the process.

And through it all, Frank keeps cashing phony checks and making more and more and more money. You can’t steal that much money without someone noticing, and sure enough, someone does: Carl Hanratty, an FBI bank fraud agent played by Tom Hanks.

Catch Me If You Can is ultimately about Frank fleeing from one father figure (Walken) for another (Hanks). While Frank loves and idealizes his father, the man is a broken, sad figure. One of the film’s most heart-wrenching scenes comes late, when Frank attempts to reconnect with his father by buying him an expensive car. His father wants none of it. And he coldly laughs off Frank’s talk about getting the family back together.

In a sense, Frank’s father doesn’t want to see him anymore. He knows his son will always be on the run. “Where you going tonight, Frank?” he asks a trifle coldly. Carl Hanratty, in sharp contrast, wants nothing more than to catch up with Frank. Sure, the reason he wants to catch up with the young man is to put him in jail, but a strange sort of respect begins to form between the hunter and the hunted. Carl is impressed with how skilled Frank is. And Frank? Well, Frank has no one left to turn to. One of the running gags of the film involves Frank calling up Carl at FBI headquarters every year on Christmas Eve. “You have no one else to call,” Carl tells him.

Hanks doesn’t take many supporting roles, and he probably wouldn’t even agree to such an offer for anyone else by Spielberg. But he’s so delightfully affable here. A straight-laced, humorless sort of guy who is somehow very funny. It’s a charming performance, and it’s also fatherly. There’s a stern warmth in Hanks’ portrayal of Carl Hanratty, resulting in an aloof-yet-attentive characterization that makes him easy to like.

Something similar could be said for DiCaprio’s take on Frank. Frank is a criminal, and in many cases – like the scene where he’s asked to consult on an injury at the hospital – he’s putting lives in danger. But we can’t help but like Frank. He’s bucking the system; revolting against the establishment. He’s also living the dream – saying to hell with an honest day’s work and making a fortune. It’s fun to watch him break the law.

“Part of the inspiration of Catch Me If You Can for me is that it shows you can turn your life around and make something better of yourself,” Spielberg said. “But it’s also a story that is pure, unadulterated fun. It has tremendous joie de vivre, which is reflective of who the real Frank Abagnale is to me.”

Yet the fun can’t last forever. Carl eventually does apprehend Frank, and has nothing but bad news for the young man: not only is he going to prison, but his father has died. Frank’s reaction to all this is to escape custody, and to flee. To flee to his mother’s house on a snowy Christmas night. And once he gets there, whatever remnants of home are officially destroyed. Peeking through the window, Frank sees his mother by the Christmas tree, happily laughing with her new family – the family friend she left Walken’s character for, and the new children she’s had with them. Frank is literally now an outsider looking in, peeking through a window, unwelcome. Uninvited. If “home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in,” Frank has no home.

Except maybe he does. With the FBI, and with Carl Hanratty. Carl essentially adopts Frank, plucking him from prison and making him an offer: live out the remainder of his prison sentence working for the FBI, helping to catch con artists like himself. Frank takes the deal, but it’s only a matter of time before his old wanderlust kicks in. He comes very close to fleeing the coop. And yet, he returns. This scene is played as amusing, even touching. But it’s actually rather sad. Frank returns to Carl and the FBI because, just as Carl said before,  “You have no one else to call.”

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Sunshine and Darkness

On the surface, Catch Me With You Can is a light-hearted romp. A funny, fast-paced comedy that never sits still and always tries to leave the audience with a smile. Spielberg and frequent cinematographer Janusz Kaminski worked hard to give the film a sunny, welcoming look. The vibrant 60s fashions pop, and the whole world has a glow to it.

“I said to Janusz: ‘We’ve done all these dark, backlit, contrasty movies for almost nine years. Let’s, for the first time, put lights right in people’s faces. Direct light on their faces. Let’s make this whole era blossom the way I remembered it,” Spielberg said.

Kaminski later added: “The visual approach was really very simple: Let’s have fun; let’s create a world that’s slightly idealistic, and not too serious. The lighting reflects that. It’s like a glass of champagne.”

Yet beneath that not-too-serious veneer lurks loneliness. There’s Frank’s inherent loneliness, illustrated by his longing for his old family and someone new to connect with. And then there are the reoccurring scenes set on Christmas, in many ways a lonely holiday. And then there’s that ending. That scene of Frank, resigned to his fate, strolling back into the drab FBI office building to help Carl, the only family he has left.

Ultimately, Catch Me If You Can is a deft blend of sunshine and darkness. It’s Spielberg having fun while reminding us that he has serious things on his mind. And it’s a personal movie that may be more personal than he ever realized.

Around the time Catch Me came out, Spielberg commented in several interviews that he could relate to Frank’s con artist ways because of one specific incident in his past. The way the filmmaker tells it, he started sneaking on the Universal Studios lot at age 16, dressed in a suit and tie, and set up shop in an empty office on the lot for three months.

“When I was first trying to become a movie director, I became a 16-and-a-half-year-old executive,” Spielberg said. “I put on a suit and tie and carried a briefcase, and walked right past Scotty at the main gate at Universal Studios every day during summer vacation. Five days a week for three months, I walked on and off that lot…and was, for that one moment, Frank Abagnale. “

It’s an amusing story, and it seems tailor-made to tie into Catch Me When You Can. Just like teenage Frank, Spielberg was pretending to be older and more professional than he really was. He was faking it till he made it. In most versions of the story, Spielberg said that during his big phony summer at Universal, he was befriended by a man named Chuck Silvers, assistant to the editorial supervisor for Universal TV.

Here’s the thing: this probably never happened. Spielberg has told variations of this story since the 1980s, and the details have changed often. And Chuck Silvers himself later confessed that the story was likely completely made-up. It was Spielberg’s long-con. Just like Frank Abagnale, he took us for a ride, and we went along with it. Because it was entertaining. Because we had no reason to doubt it. And because it was from a completely different era – just like the setting of Catch Me If You Can

[Catch Me if You Can] could only have taken place in an age of innocence,” Spielberg said, “which we are no longer about as a global community. Today people are generally more suspicious of each other, whereas in the sixties there was a community of trust. That innocence was something all of us are nostalgic about.”

That nostalgia for a more innocent time, coupled with the ever-present longing for home, would continue on into Steven Spielberg’s next film.

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