Mapping Contemporary Cinema

Catch Me If You Can, 2002

Production Company: DreamWorks SKG, Splendid Pictures, Kemp Company, Amblin Entertainment, Bungalow 78 Productions
Distribution: DreamWorks Distribution, United International Pictures
Director: Steven Spielberg
Executive Producer: Barry Kemp, Laurie MacDonald, Michel Shane, Tony Romano
Producer: Steven Spielberg, Walter F. Parks
Screenplay: Jeff Nathanson, based on Frank W. Abagnale’s book, Catch Me If You Can (1980)
Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski
Editor: Michael Kahn
Music: John Williams
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Frank Abagnale Jr.), Tom Hanks (Carl Hanratty), Christopher Walken (Frank Abagnale Sr.), Martin Sheen (Roger Strong), Nathalie Baye (Paula Abagnale), Amy Adams (Brenda Strong), James Brolin (Jack Barnes), Brian Howe (Earl Amdursky)
Running Time: 141 mins.
Classification: Rated PG-13 for some sexual content and brief language
Tagline: The True Story of a Real Fake
Box office gross: domestic $164.6m/worldwide $352m
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Plot: 1964-1969. Brought up in the New York suburb of New Rochelle, Frank W. Abagnale Jr. is the teenage son of businessman and small-time con artist Frank Sr.. The bottom falls out of Frank’s world when his parents divorce and his father faces severe financial problems due to a dispute with the IRS. Leaving home for New York, Frank Jr. discovers that by impersonating an airline pilot, he can more easily persuade banks to cash his fraudulent cheques. Hoodwinking the airlines, he flies all over the country, leaving huge debts behind him. Carl Hanratty, a dour FBI agent specializing in fraud, is given the task of pursuing Frank Jr.. When Hanratty tracks him down in Los Angeles, Frank tricks him by pretending he’s a law enforcement officer and escapes. Frank now decides to reinvent himself as a doctor. Forging his credentials, he finds a senior position at an Atlanta hospital. Here, he becomes attracted to Brenda, an ingenuous young nurse who has been kicked out of her home by her conservative parents for having an abortion. He accompanies her to her home in New Orleans where her wealthy lawyer father takes Frank into the bosom of the family. Frank passes his law exams and joins the family firm. On the eve of his marriage, Frank is again tracked down by Hanratty. He escapes and flees to France where he continues to earn a living through forgery. Hanratty pursues him, finally arresting him and taking him back to the US, where he is sent to prison. Realising his unusual abilities, Hanratty gets Frank released so that he can work for the FBI’s fraud squad (adapted from Macnab 39).

Film note: Considering the number of key players that have been attached to the film and then dropped from the production, it is remarkable that Catch Me If You Can was ever made. Frank Abagnale Jr., the man on whose life the movie is based, released the rights to his novel of the same name in 1980. Ten years later producer Michel Shane optioned the book to turn it into a motion picture developed by his Magellan Filmed Entertainment. In 1997, the project was taken to DreamWorks after Barry Kemp bought the rights and brought in Jeff Nathanson to work on the script (Brodesser and Harris, 2001). In July 2000, Leonardo DiCaprio became the first star to be attached to the picture, planning to start it after finishing Gangs of New York (2002) (Brodesser and Lyons). In the same period, further negotiations sounded out David Fincher and Gore Verbinski as possible directors, with the latter finally taking the film. However, shooting delays on Gangs of New York eventually forced Catch Me If You Can’s production to be postponed. As a result, actors James Gandolfini and Ed Harris had to leave the project, followed by Verbinski who wanted to get the movie finished before the impending Writers and Screen Actors Guild strikes (Brodesser and Harris, 2000). During this chaotic period Steven Spielberg, who had already been on board as a producer, tried to persuade other directors, including Milos Forman and Lasse Hallstrom, to take the job. By August 2001, however, Spielberg decided to produce and direct the film himself. Tom Hanks and Christopher Walken were next to join the cast before the shooting dates were pushed from January to February 2001. Once the film was in production things ran more smoothly, with the 56 day shoot across over 140 different locations coming in at a cost of a modest $52m (“Movie Production Notes”).

Loveable rogues Catch Me If You Can may be positioned within the category of the con-artist film, that is a particular sub-genre of the crime film. The con-artist or caper film tends to focus on the spectacle and finesse of the crime performed by the protagonist. “At the heart of the ‘con’ is the ‘art’ of deception—the cultivation of impressions and identity so as to lead the victim to part voluntarily with their money or other goods” (Tzanelli, Yar and O’Brien 98). Indeed, the majority of “con-artist films depict the con-artist as “hero”, giving us an aspirational figure and prototype for the ideology of self-realization, independence and rugged individualism” (Tzanelli, Yar and O’Brien 99). This particular characterization of the criminal seems to be the reason why Spielberg was interested in the project. He is quoted as saying: “Personally, I have always loved movies about sensational rogues, like the Newman/Redford classics Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Sting (1973). They were breaking the law, but you had to love them for their moxie” (“Movie Production Notes”). The decision to produce a con-artist film was also in line with a renewed popularity of the genre at the turn of the century. Similarly themed films like Heartbreakers (2001), Heist (2001), and Nine Queens (2001) were released a year before Catch Me If You Can, while Confidence (2003) and Matchstick Men (2003) came out the following year. These were all very successful films that, according to Box Office Mojo–and with the exception of Nine Queens–were ranked in the top twenty, if not top ten, highest grossing con-artist films of the past few decades. Catch Me If You Can topped that list, grossing over over $30m in its opening weekend, and $164m in its lifetime.

Con-artist films have been produced in every decade; yet, arguably the best known is George Roy Hill’s The Sting, a box office hit that won seven Academy Awards including Best Picture. Catch Me If You Can has much in common with Hill’s film: both movies invite their audiences to sympathize with the criminal protagonists and their elegant scams. The Sting creates empathy through its heavy reliance on narrative suspense; the spectator worries about Hooker (Redford) and Gondorff (Newman) as there is always the chance that their fraud may go wrong and that the dangerous crime boss Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw) may discover their trick. Such suspense is missing from Catch Me If You Can because the story is told in flashbacks and the audience is aware from the outset that Frank has been apprehended. This narrative structure, however, allows the viewer to get closer to Frank’s past, his memories and his intimate thoughts; as a result, the film manages to create sympathy between audience and criminal by means of an accurate description and characterization of the protagonist. It helps that the Frank is played by Leonardo DiCaprio, often looking like a lost little boy or cocky teenager. As with more recent films 21 (2008) and Ocean’s Eleven (2001), Catch Me If You Can and The Sting frame criminal activity in a light-hearted way, discouraging the viewer thinking too deeply about the emotional pain Frank’s actions cause.

9/11 and nostalgia This playful and light-hearted tone enables the activation of nostalgia: what is striking about the comparison between Catch Me If You Can and The Sting is that both films are set in the past–the 1960s and the 1930s, respectively. This similarity subsequently raises the question of what role nostalgia plays in relation to the depiction of the con-artist. Like The Sting–made during the controversial and disillusioned years of the Nixon administration–Catch Me If You Can was produced in a period of political and cultural upheaval. Released a year after the terrorist of attacks September 11, 2001 Catch Me If You Can offers a safe, fantasy past in marked contrast to “the ‘terror-dream’ that 9/11 had forced to the surface of national consciousness” (Faludi 118). Susan Faludi argues that the traumatic events of 9/11 brought to the fore a shared feeling of anxiety, suspicion and humiliation caused “by a flickering sense of failed protection” (Faludi 10). Following 9/11, the illusion of mastery over one’s security and actions was undermined by the highly contentious restrictions on individual rights and freedoms caused by new national security measures such as the USA Patriot Act. To this extent, Catch Me If You Can recovers the possibility of individual autonomy and entrepreneurial achievement. Frank is a young man who can easily travel and act according to his dreams and desires; the film appeals to its contemporary audience–who have become accustomed to constant surveillance–especially because the film shows a world where people could travel freely and a person’s identity could be changed with his clothes. As producer Walter F. Parkes states, “it was the naiveté of those days that allowed Frank to get away with what he did for so long” (“Movie Production Notes”). And Catch Me If You Can exploits this image of a romanticized version of the 1960s–avoiding any reference to the the Cold War, the civil rights struggle, or the Vietnam War protests–in order to create an atmosphere of safety, opportunity, and benign authority. As Armond White writes, “…plaintiveness takes Catch Me If You Can beyond simple nostalgia; it captures the tangled essence of American desire… This vision of the life Americans once idealized also measures the distance we’ve gotten away from it” (1).

The selective signifiers of the past that Spielberg and his co-creators display in the film parallel a widespread media representation of the 1960s as a period of fun and pleasure. From the set design to the costumes and the music, everything was created is carefully orchestrated to convey this atmosphere. The director of photography, Janusz Kaminski, and Spielberg wanted the scenes to be filled with light and color. Tom Hanks described the era as “the age of the jet set [because] literally, you could get on a jet plane and be on the other side of the world in a matter of hours… It was the height of glamour: colors looked cooler and everything was very bold and stylish” (“Movie Production Notes”). Costumes proved a particularly significant component in the creation of nostalgia: Frank’s constant costume changes are colour coordinated, for example. As he “gets better and better at his game, the color palette gets wilder and wilder […reaching vibrant shades of] orange and yellow and red and pink. Then towards the end, as he is totally blending in with the bureaucracy, everything is again relatively monochromatic” (“Movie Production Notes”).

Nostalgia, however, is not only created through the production design; this same feeling is produced by the film’s musical score and is set up from the beginning through the opening title sequence. This, in fact, depicts “brightly coloured [… animated] figures chasing one another through geometrically stylised scenery” (Allison). Not only does this sequence reveal the narrative content of the film by showing the graphic characters moving from one location to another as their human counterparts will do throughout the plot; the sequence also establishes, from the beginning, the look and feel of the movie displaying a style that “combines a startling modernity with a retro cool that powerfully recalls the light comedies of the 1960s” (Allison). Besides, the scene openly reminds us of the opening credits of The Pink Panther (1963). To this extent, Catch Me If You Can’s title sequence offers a “well-known point of reference that invokes the sprightly crime films so characteristic of that era” (Allison). Similarly, the musical score of the film conveys a nostalgic feeling right from the beginning, with John Williams’ score echoing the style of the progressive jazz (typified by the work of Henry Mancini) that was so popular during the 1960s. Indeed, Catch Me If You Can’s score is so reminiscent of the 1960s that it perfectly merges with the original period songs that are played throughout the film, including Astrud Gilberto’s “The Girl from Ipanema”. Spielberg insisted that Frank Sinatra’s “Come Fly With Me” would be added to the scene in which Frank impersonates an airline pilot. Not only does the music add some humorous effect to the scene; the specific choice of citing Sinatra exploits the evocative power of his persona as an emblematic symbol of the 1960s.

Fathers and sons Deceptive, smart and audacious con-artists like Frank can be seen to impersonate the appealing dream of financial and social self-realization. The idealized past seems to be the place where “the materialistic success myth” that is central to the American culture can be retrieved (Winn 6). “Suspended between ‘roguery’ and ‘romance’, Spielberg’s Abagnale both recapitulates and renews the USA’s ambivalent relationship with one of its most enduring (and endearing) wayward sons, the Confidence Man” (Tzanelli, Yar and O’Brien 102). Yet, Catch Me If You Can also foregrounds what J. Emmett Winn considers a second founding principle of “the American Dream […that is] the moralistic myth” of familial stability (6). The film’s first flashback shows a sick Frank in a Marseille prison begging Carl to bring him ‘home’. Home, however, does not only mean America for Frank but, more precisely, his family. Indeed, after these words are pronounced the editing cuts to a further flashback showing Frank embracing his father at a party marking the latter’s elevation to the Rotary Club roll of honour. Then one more scene shows an idyllic image of a suburban house surrounded by statues of religious figures and a shiny white Cadillac. The shot clearly shows how financial success and religious practice have become embedded in American society. Frank will remember his family this way throughout the entire film, yet he comes from a broken home. Indeed, what sets Frank’s crimes in motion is his need to escape the home after his parents divorce; what is more, he often attempts to re-create the idyll. Later in the film, for example, Frank buys a new Cadillac for his impoverished father in the hope that this will be enough to bring his mother back. In line with this conservative vision, the film depicts women as helpless status seekers, associated with swimming pools, fashionable clothes and beauty. Frank’s mother and his wife, for example, are passive characters that wait for men to provide them with the protection and wealth they cannot otherwise obtain. The Abagnale men, in turn, seem to value their success according to their ability to please and provide for their women. Such relationship between women and men reflects what Susan Faludi recognizes as the American attempt after 9/11 to overcome a sense of “unmanly ineptitude” by means of restoring the ancient myth of a family nucleus where women needed men’s protection and men would feel empowered by succeeding in providing it (Faludi 11).

Frank’s relationship to his father is central to the notion of happiness as linked to financial success and familial stability. The Christmas scene that Frank repeatedly recalls encapsulates these themes. Frank witnesses his father hanging the treasured Rotary award on the wall and then leading his tipsy mother in a romantic and sensual dance illuminated by candlelight. During the dance the father keeps his eyes on his son, symbolically “…teaching [him] how to sweep women off their feet…. [This is] an idyllic portrait of the All-American family frozen in time: the prosperous father, the adoring mother, and the respectful adolescent primed to emulate his dad” (Friedman 71). Similarly, Frank learns from his father how to make appear small necklaces and uses this trick in order to bribe several women.

However, as Frank’s deception spirals further and further he begins to lose his connection with his real father and replaces him with different figures: the first is his father-in-law, Roger Strong, then, finally, a pseudo-paternal relationship is created with the detective Carl Hanratty. The recurring Christmas Eve scenes, where Frank and Carl speak to each other, represent the strengthening bond between the two. Both characters are shown alone in empty rooms. Carl cruelly mocks Frank for calling him only because he has nobody else to call; yet, in truth, the same could be said for him. “Ironically then, agent Hanratty fulfils the duties of Frank’s father better than his real father, since he becomes a form of abstract Law, from which Frank initially tries to escape, but eventually embraces” (Tzanelli, Yar and O’Brien 108). Catch Me If You Can ultimately proves to be a coming-of-age tale: Frank’s real father ignites his son’s desire to seek status and a perfect family but, after failing to fulfill his duty to protect his home, the father loses his status of role model to be replaced by Hanratty, a surrogate paternal figure who can teach Frank how to be a man within the FBI’s surrogate family.

As such, the film meditates on the illusory nature of the American Dream. Spielberg chooses to portray Frank as a spectator who learns how to be a doctor or a lawyer through television; similarly he shows the young boy watching the happiness of his family circle through different inscribed screens such as windows and doors. Yet, in the same way–while looking at his mother’s new family–Frank is forced to realize that some dreams are forever broken and lost. On the one hand, this may appear to reflect Spielberg’s “dissatisfaction with and critique of middle-class American values” (Friedman 76). On the other, it finally seems that the retreat into such illusory dream may be the only alternative to the uniformity and dull conformity of a restricting sanctioned life. The FBI office with its rows of grey and brown desks, illuminated by a plain white light, suggests imprisonment. Yet, as the closing titles explain, this is also the place where Frank ultimately gains his irrevocable Mid-western respectability, subscribing to the encoded fantasies of the American myth of financial success and familial stability within either the state or the home. These values seem increasingly illusory and difficult to be realized in the real contemporary world; yet they are nevertheless promoted by the official culture as the instruments needed to re-create the ancient “myth of invincibility” that 9/11 had endangered (Faludi 14). He who fails to adhere to these codes will suffer the exclusion from society and experience “the shame of cultural and self-recrimination” (Faludi 118). Spielberg’s Abagnale can finally stop changing identity as he finally validates his place in the world by conforming to America’s conservative dream.


Abagnale, Frank W. with Stan Redding. Catch Me If You Can: The Amazing True Story of the Youngest and Most Daring Con Man in the History of Fun and Profit. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1980. Print.

Allison, Deborah. “Catch Me If You Can, Auto Focus, Far From Heaven and the Art of Retro Title Sequences”. Senses of Cinema, 26 (2003): n.p. Web. 28 Feb. 2011.

Brodesser, Claude, and Charles Lyons. “DiCaprio plays ‘Catch’: Verbinski, Fincher up for helming position”. 30 Jul. 2000. Web. 25 Feb. 2011.

Brodesser, Claude, and Dana Harris. “D’Works to play ‘Catch’: DiCaprio starrer eyes Jan. start date with Spielberg at helm”. 21 Aug. 2001. Web. 27 Feb. 2011

—. “Inside Move: DiCaprio misses ‘Catch’: ‘Gangs’ hits overtime, forces delay for Dreamworks pic”. 5 Nov. 2000. Web. 25 Feb. 2011.

Faludi, Susan. The Terror Dream: What 9/11 Revealed About America. London: Atlantic Books, 2007. Print.

Friedman, Lester D. Citizen Spielberg. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2006. Print.

Macnab, Geoffrey. ‘Review: Catch Me If You Can’. Sight and Sound, 13.2 (2003): 39-40. Print.

‘Movie Production Notes: Catch Me If You Can.’ Ltd, n.d. Web. 25 Feb. 2011.

Tzanelli, Rodanthi, Majid Yar and Martin O’Brien. “’Con Me If You Can’: Exploring Crime in the American Cinematic Imagination”. Theoretical Criminology, 9.1 (2005): 97-117. Print.

White, Armond. “Review: Catch Me If You Can”. New York 31 Dec. 2002. Web. 27 Feb. 2011.

Winn, J. Emmett. The American Dream and Contemporary Hollywood Cinema. New York: Continuum, 2007. Print.

Written by Samantha Erin Landau (2009); edited by Caterina Lotti (2011), Queen Mary, University of London

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Copyright © 2011 Samantha Erin Landau/Mapping Contemporary Cinema

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