June 01, 2003

Catch Me If You Can -- A discussion

Movies sometimes provide a great way to condense and distill storytelling, removing grammer, spelling and description out of the way of the bare bones. I think lots can be learned by watching movies and listening too to the director's commentary tracks on DVDs.

This is what I came way with from the movie, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN. It's a study of story telling with major plot spoilers.

I watched the DVD of CATCH ME IF YOU CAN and found it a well-crafted story and thought I’d talk about it here.

The writer (Jeff Nathanson) faced three main problems. One was to make the hero likable, that you would always cheer for him even though he’s a thief and – posing as a professional in situations that would be putting people’s lives at risk if he screwed up – a hazard to the public. The second problem is that the Tom Hanks character, Carl Hanratty, joins the story late but is a pivotal character. The third is keeping up tension to the end of the movie, given that the story as a slow set up, main characters rarely interacting, covers four years of time, and ends with the hero being caught and thrown in jail and then redeemed.

The writer does a brilliant job with these three problems.

He starts with Frank on the TV show ‘To Tell the Truth’. In the disguise of the game show, we’re told why we’re watching this movie. Our hero at the ages 16-19, posed as a pilot, a doctor and a lawyer so well that he flew free for thousands of miles, was in charge of an emergency room in a hospital, and was a prosecuting attorney in Louisiana. It also sets the time frame of the sixties, which he reminds us by flashing dates on the screen.* We don’t dwell on this scene -- after two questions, we move quickly on to the next scene to set up the other hero, Carl Hanratty, the FBI agent that caught the hero.

The writer picks a scene late in the story. Frank has been caught in France and imprisoned in horrible conditions. Carl forces his way in to see Frank and finds him sick. He demands a doctor and takes Frank to the infirmary – only to have Frank crawl away in a desperate attempt escape again. The escape fails pitifully with Frank too weak to run and surrenders to Carl. Here we get the promise that Carl is a good man, and though the two have played the cat and mouse, we can cheer Carl on because he’ll protect Frank in the end.

In these two scenes, we have the hook of we’re going to see a clever con man in action, and the good cop that tracks him down.

With that hook set, the writer then backs up for a slower pace to set up Frank in terms that we can be willing to cheer him on and also show the roots of his success. The writer picks the peak of his happiness – the day his father is given an award by the Rotary. Pride shines on Frank’s face as his father, a successful businessman, accepts the award. Later that night, he watches his parent dance, in love and happy. He is a child secure in his place in a loving, well-to-do family. The next day, however, it starts to crumble, as we learn that the father is under investigation by the IRS for tax fraud for what we’re told is his accountant’s mistake. Banks turn cold-shoulder to the plead for money to help save the father’s business. The family loses their home, and, unhappy with the downfall of the family fortune, Frank’s mother betrays his father to take up with a wealthy man. In a few short scenes, Frank’s world is destroyed, seemingly at the hands of the uncaring government and big banks.

The final straw is when he comes home to find his mother packing and a stranger telling him that he must pick which parent he has to live with. In a panic, he literally runs from the apartment, and into a life of crime. Suddenly out in the world, without any money, he starts to pass bad checks to survive – and proves to be very good at it.

Sprinkled into these scenes are seeds of great importance. There is the love of his parents. The con man style of his father with visit to the bank and the line ‘They can’t see past the pinstripes.’ And Frank pretending to be the substitute French teacher at his new school – for a WEEK – because he was being bullied by ‘the jocks.’

With great skill, the writer gives us a hero we can cheer while he does otherwise awful things. He’s only sixteen, his life has been quickly destroyed, and he starts into crime only to survive. We want him to succeed.

Similarly, to keep our good will, Frank stumbles into posing as an airplane co-pilot. He sees a group of pilots being wine and dined at a hotel that who is treating him badly. He poses as a Pan-Am employee to get a uniform in order to get better treatment at the hotel – and is told that he can cash larger checks at the airport. At the airport, he’s asked if he’s the ‘deadhead’ -- flying free back home – and blithely says that he is and finds himself flying to Miami.

Posing as a doctor was the hardest jump for me, sympathy-wise. The writer deftly handles this too.

A friend breaks his ankle at Frank’s party. Frank goes to the hospital to see his friend, and overhears a young nurse being reduced to tears by a doctor. On what seems to purely impulse, he claims to be a doctor and makes the nurse feel better. The job he ends up with is called ‘babysitting the other doctors and nurses’ and we see him quickly trying to dodge any real responsibly dealing with patients. Having dealt with that in only three scenes, we shift on, glossing over this potently dangerous area. He quickly bails out on the doctor job to take on the job as a lawyer. Again, the pretty young nurse who he’s fallen in love with and plans to marry seems to be his motivation and one we’ll happily cheer. I suspect a truer motivation was planted in the conversation with Hanratty on Christmas Eve. Hanratty guesses that Frank is calling him because he has no one else to call, and shortly after that Frank hooks up with the nurse. Also, not knowing that his mother has remarried, he arranges to have his parents ‘meet’ at his engagement party, hoping that they’ll get back together again. It is possible, too, that he sees the nurse as a way to gain access to being a lawyer since this is the first request he makes of her father, only asking for her hand in marriage after finding out how to take the bar in Louisiana. If the audience guesses that these are truer reasons for the ‘marriage’ then they’ll still be willing to forgive him because he gets his bride back into the loving bosom of her family with his lie. (Well, for the time being. If they throw her back out, we don’t talk about that.)

Another sympathy-building device the writer uses is his letter home to his father. The Japanese talk about the fact that Americans hate silence and often redub the Japanese movies so that sections of the film that have ‘important silence’ are now filled with someone talking. It’s important we see how Frank bluffs his way into his jobs, carefully making documents to support his claims. America filmmakers probably see this as dead space where they might lose the audience, so they fill the silence with letters to Frank’s dad. In these letters, it’s easy to see how important ‘making his father proud’ plays in Frank’s mindset. In the letters, and in his meetings with his father, he constantly talks about ‘making it all right’ and ‘will get it all back again.’ The letters contradict the carefully scheming evil that Frank is doing on the screen with the little boy inner voice of ‘I will remake my world back to the time when everything was good.’

The last sympathy-building device that the writer uses is the fact that Frank makes repeated attempts to quit. When he goes to his father with the news of his wedding – basically handing back to his father money and means to repair his parent’s marriage – his father instead rejects all gifts, instead telling him to keep scamming the federal government that broke his father. “Tell me to quit!” Frank pleads and is refused. Frank also calls Hanratty every Christmas Eve, asking for redemption and a chance to quit.

Having played out all sympathy cards for Frank, we change POV to the chase with Hanratty closing in on Frank.

Carl Hanratty sympathy set up is him taking care of Frank in the second scene of the film. The follow up scenes have him working on Christmas Eve, eating take out Chinese, ‘so that other agents with family can be with their family.’ We’re shown that he’s intelligent and hard working, and striving to win out in a system that isn’t helping. (He gets bottom of the barrel as his team.) He’s told that Frank’s resourcefulness is making him look like a fool. Still, he’s fairly even tempered and dogged. He states often – showing the audience he realizes the truth – that the person he’s chasing after is just a kid. This moves him into ‘the father figure position’ especially later when Frank learns that his father broke his neck falling down steps while he was in Europe. (Carl’s daughter Grace is 15 to Frank’s 19 at the end of the film.)

The play of tension is also well handled in the film. A straightforward sequence of story would have kept Carl Hanratty from appearing too late in the film, and also in many long, slow paced segments. Instead we jump back and forth between the straight forward scenes of Frank’s life building to his capture, and later scenes of Carl bringing Frank home from France after his capture, letting us know that the capture isn’t the true end of the film. The climax, unfortunately, suffers a little in that it takes place over a weekend and we really don’t get to see Frank decide. All we get to see is Carl worrying if Frank will decide the right thing and return from the weekend. Still, by threading ‘the return to America’ through the course the movie, we’re hitting little reminders that if things work well for Frank, Carl loses, and possibly Frank too, since he really show signs of wanting to quit. If Carl keeps hold of Frank, though, things will not go well for Frank. How could this story possibly end well?

It could have been that the movie could have ended with Carl getting Frank out of jail to work for the FBI, but I don’t think it could have had a convincing end. How could we be sure Frank wouldn’t run at the first time possible? Having him work through a week, disappear for a weekend, and then return confirms that all will be okay.

Posted by wen at June 1, 2003 04:39 PM