‘The True Story of a Real Fake’. ‘Catch them this Christmas’. ‘Die wahre Story einer genialen Täschung.’ James Bond himself would be proud. Catch Me If You Can is one of those rare tales which is so outlandish, so impressive, so obscenely impossible that it simply must be told. Keeping to the facts (almost), Catch Me If You Can follows the story of Frank William Abagnale, Jr., number one on listverse.com’s ‘Top Famous Con Men’, a title not to be sniffed at when you consider that the man who sold Brooklyn Bridge to unsuspecting tourists twice a week is only at number 5.
I was twelve when Catch Me If You Can came out and just starting high school with all the potential and exuberance of youth on my side. I’d see people like Frank every day in the corridors: big kids who looked old enough to be doctors, teachers or airline pilots but were still only sixteen years old. I must’ve watched this film about dozen times in the space of a month (not least because my mum is a sucker for real life adventurers) and it absolutely enthralled me with each viewing.
There are so many elements to Catch Me If You Can which make it essential viewing for the young and old alike. The first is its sumptuous dedication to all things 1960s. I knew about the ‘60s but mostly from watching Scooby Doo and Batman!, but this film brought it all to life with real people and places (though Batman will always be real to me…). From the second the opening credits slinked onto the screen, all angular and mysterious with percussive ‘sshh’ing and a syncopated, tense string section courtesy of John Williams (of course) my imagination was tingling.
In fact, the opening credits are a perfectly formed short film all of their own. They are so intensely glamorous: an insignificant figure, plainly dressed with no defining features, saunters onto the screen and gazes up as a flock of aeroplanes spread themselves across the open sky. A line of silhouetted, identical airline pilots strut boldly ahead of him, followed in tow by the slinky trot of their gorgeous air hostesses. And suddenly as if by magic this nobody is one of them, sharing in the omnipotence of a pilot’s cap under the scrutinizing gaze of an oversized, trilby-wearing FBI agent who can only chase the shadows of this mysterious figure, his magical transformations just go to show that a leopard can change his spots after all. Swimming deftly from one luxury to the next, the saxophone swings this unknown from great things to greater, all the while staying just one jump ahead of the long suffering detective in pursuit.
And all this just from the opening credits. What a masterpiece! The film opens with the title card of a 1970s game show, aptly called ‘To Tell the Truth’. Three dashing young men in pilot’s stripes, each claiming to be Frank William Abagnale Jnr. stand before a panel armed only with their wit and ability to lie their way past the panel. The real Frank starts his story, which takes the form of a flashback. Our first taste of his adventure is a horrendously rainy day in (we assume) France, where the French police struggle to pronounce Hanratty’s name with amusing results, and it continues onwards from there. Half starved and ridden with lice, incarcerated by the French in the nation which finally caught him, Frank attempts one more escape from the top security cell where he is kept before jumping back in time yet again to where it all began.
It’s interesting how the film treats Frank in these opening scenes, and I am including the credits as a scene in this case. He’s up and down like a yoyo: from the perfect con artist to a half dead prisoner via has been game show guest, finally emerging as an awkward, decidedly square looking teen once the film finally gets going.
It may be a daft thing to say, but it’s definitely the story which carries this film. The cinematography is fairly basic, I can’t think of many major stand-out shots which spring to mind for anything other than “whaaaaattttt, don’t tell me he’s jumping out of a moving aeroplane!!!!” or something similar. But there is loving attention to detail paid to this 1960s homage, a loving tribute to James Bond in many small instances. The costumes are sumptuous and instantly recognizable for their era, helping to give Catch Me If You Can even more of an air of fantasy about it. I’m told (by IMDB) that there are a plethora of anachronisms [Many of the cars in this movie have new style aero dynamic black wiper blades. Cars of the 1960s had standard silver/chrome coloured wiper blades, etc.etc.] and whilst I can appreciate that for some this might ‘spoil’ things a bit, for the rest of us who weren’t there (man) these trifling inaccuracies are little more than a misjudged sprinkling of icing sugar atop a knickerbocker glory.
So the story is the real draw to this film, but of course to have a story you need actors and a good script to tell it. It’s safe to say that Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks are as safe a bet as nutmeg in an apple pie. Tom Hanks: the Everyman, able to play anybody from the president to a bum (probably). He does a stand up job as Special Agent Carl Hanratty, surly, dilapidated and generally disillusioned. His sum-up quote must certainly be his ‘joke’, which runs along the lines of “knock knock. Who’s there? Go fuck yourself.” Classic 1960s FBI cynicism, and a much needed grounding to a film where the sky’s the limit.
To me, Catch Me If You Can is the film which saw DiCaprio making the difficult transition all successful young actors experience where they go from playing a boy (a la Titanic) to a man (think Gangs of New York). In this film he plays both with delightfully Shakespearean slant. Even though he spends most of the film as a suave, dashing airline pilot/doctor/lawyer/teacher, underneath he’s just a messed up teen who freaked out and ran away from home when his parents decided to get a divorce. In a way, he’s too good at his ‘act’… most of the time I forget he’s meant to be playing a teenager and get lost in the bravado and confidence of this most confident of con men. Still though, he’s far from unbelievable, I’d just say that Spielberg should have given more time and significance to bringing out the teen in this most fantastic of characters.
Without a doubt, the supporting star of the show is Christopher Walken as Frank W. Abagnale Sr. He is truly pitiable as the down and out Rotary Club Pin holder turned post office worker. He loses everything in this film going from wealthy, handsome and married to a gorgeous French babe to living alone in a grotty flat without ever losing his charm or dignity. He maintains his swagger till the bitter end, and the brief scene he has with Hanks is one of the characteristic highlights of the film.
If I were you, I would definitely watch this film. It’s not the most intellectually stimulating or thought provoking or even historically accurate, but it’ll put you on the trail of the greatest fraudster modern history has ever known. It’s a story so rare and unique it’s more than worth the couple of hours spent watching it unfold and for the more enthusiastic f you there’s a great book to read (co written by the real Frank Abagnale Jr.) for even more scandal and intrigue. This won’t be remembered as Spielberg, Hanks or DiCaprio’s finest hour but it’s such good fun I don’t suppose it bothers them in the slightest.