I’ve mentioned several times in other posts how I believe Catch Me If You Can is one of Steven Spielberg’s best films. This breezy true-life dramedy is entertaining, funny, poignant, and charming and features Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks in peak form. Mix in a superb John Williams score, an intelligent script, terrific photography by Janusz Kaminski, and strong supporting turns from Christopher Walken and Amy Adams, and you have a bonafide classic.
Now that this finely executed piece of cinematic perfection has reached its 20th anniversary, I decided to look back and highlight my five favorite moments from the picture, a difficult task, as the entirety of Catch Me If You Can is fantastic.
Frank Teaches School
For those unaware, Catch Me If You Can tells the true-life tale of Frank Abagnale Jr., a 16-year-old who runs away from home following his parents’ divorce and takes up a life of crime. Not hard crime, mind you — this isn’t Goodfellas. Instead, Frank uses his effortless charm and wit to steal money from banks and cons his way into high-quality jobs — a pilot, doctor, and lawyer, for starters. He also sleeps with a lot of women. So basically, he’s living the dream.
Frank carries a knack for deception, you see? Early in the film, he draws the ire of a bully on his first day at a public school. In retaliation, Frank, who looks far older than his age, assumes the role of a substitute teacher and subjects the bully to an awkward presentation in front of the class. When the real sub shows up, Frank quips, “I always sub for Roberta.”
Eventually, the school catches on to his scheme, necessitating a meeting with Frank’s parents. While his mother scoffs at his ridiculous behavior — “He was planning a field trip,” the school principal notes — Frank Sr. (Walken) gets a kick out of the prank and has himself a good laugh.
Frank Meets Carl Hanratty
After running away from home, Frank figures out how to write fake checks. The film never explains how he initially knows so much about routing numbers and such. Still, his numerous flings with lovely bank tellers across the U.S. expands his knowledge to the point where he becomes a master criminal and catches the eye of FBI Agent Carl Hanratty (Hanks).
Carl, a desk jockey without much field experience, gets the drop on Frank in a Hollywood hotel. He bursts into the room, gun in hand, screaming, “FBI!” Frank calmly steps out of the bathroom, senses Carl’s shaky demeanor, and goes for the kill.
“That’s the new IBM Selectric,” he says, brushing off Carl’s threats. “You know, he’s got over two-hundred checks here —”
“Hands on your head,” Carl shouts.
“Relax,” Frank says. “You’re late.” He presents himself as Barry Allen, United States Secret Service, and is so convincing in his delivery that he turns the tables and persuades Carl to show him his ID.
Frank then tells Carl to relax and wait while he takes some of the equipment downstairs and slips out of the room with his check-making machines in tow. By the time Carl realizes his error, Frank is long gone, leading our stunned FBI agent to shout, “Goddammit,” in a manner only Tom Hanks could pull off. Brilliant.
The turning point in Catch Me If You Can arrives when Hanratty finally catches up with Frank during an engagement party. While working as a doctor, Frank falls in love with a young nurse named Brenda (Adams) and decides to settle down with her, but Hanratty catches wind of the engagement and crashes the reception.
Sensing his pursuer, Frank rushes into a bedroom with Brenda and finally tells her the truth. “Brenda,” he says, “I don’t want to lie to you. I’m not a doctor, a lawyer, or a Lutheran. My name is Frank Abagnale. I ran away from home a year and a half ago when I was 16.”
For her part, Brenda takes this news in stride and quietly asks, “Frank, you’re not a Lutheran?”
Frank reveals suitcases full of money, steps through an open window, and asks for Brenda to meet him at Miami International Airport so they can run away together. Through tearful eyes, the young woman agrees but then asks, “Tell me your real name!”
“Frank William Abignale, Jr.”
We’ve enjoyed Frank’s misadventures because they’re mostly harmless fun dipped in a thick coat of youthful ignorance. During the engagement party, however, we see how his actions negatively affect others, in this case, Brenda. From this point on, we view Frank in a different light and start to understand why Carl needs to stop him before he goes too far.
Come Fly With Me
Carl attempts to capture Frank by using Brenda as bait, but the young man slips through his fingers again.
Enraged by Carl’s actions, Frank conceives an escape plan. He could sneak away but chooses Miami’s airport to make a public spectacle out of Carl. Our naïve young criminal heads to a school and convinces a group of women to join him on a trip around the world (they think Pan Am is sponsoring the venture). And, well, this brilliant scene occurs:
That’s movie magic right there — a glorious scene that makes you smile while pushing the plot and characters forward. I love how Carl doesn’t know how to use his radio and his panicked response when one of his team says they spotted Frank in the parking lot. I miss this Tom Hanks.
Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire
After Carl finally captures Frank in France, they board a plane and return to the states. En route, Carl reveals that Frank’s father died while Frank was in prison, leading our young criminal to escape custody via a James Bond-like feat of derring-do. Frank then heads to his mother’s home and finds her shacked up in a cozy mansion living with James Brolin. Spielberg bathes the scene in warm Christmas lights and plays Nat King Cole’s “Christmas Song” over the soundtrack — Frank’s ultimate dream comes to vivid life. Except he’s literally on the outside looking in.
Eventually, Carl arrives and places Frank in a patrol car, and we get a masterful shot of a bitter and isolated Frank staring into a rearview mirror while his fantasy (obstructed by a police signal) quickly fades from view, a depressing end to a joyous adventure.
Frank spent the last few years traveling the world, buying expensive cars, dating beautiful women, and eating at fancy restaurants. Yet, his money failed to deliver the happiness he craved. Ironically, he finds more success when he flips sides and begins working for the FBI under Carl’s watchful eye — a warmhearted finale that leaves you feeling like a million bucks.