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Film / Catch Me If You Can

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Catch Me If You Can is a 2002 Steven Spielberg film based on the 1980 memoir of the teenage con artist Frank Abagnale Jr.

Frank Abagnale Jr. is a teenager in 1960s New York whose humdrum life is disturbed when his father goes bankrupt and his parents divorce. Frank, who has already shown a talent for mimicry, embarks on a new life as a teenaged con artist, passing himself off as an airline pilot, a doctor and a lawyer while he's still too young to drink. It's Based on a True Story, and the real Frank Abagnale Jr. was on hand as a consultant and was enthusiastic about its production.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Frank Jr., with Tom Hanks as FBI agent Carl Hanratty, who is chasing Frank, and Christopher Walken as Frank Sr. Amy Adams has one of her first big film roles as Brenda, a young volunteer nurse who gets engaged to Frank. A young Elizabeth Banks appears briefly as a bank clerk who's attracted to Frank.

In 2009, a musical adaptation of the film premiered in Seattle before debuting in Broadway in 2011. Aaron Tveit and Norbert Leo Butz originated the roles of Frank and Carl.

This film provides examples of:

  • The '60s: The majority of the film.
  • The '70s: The last fifteen or so minutes of the film.
  • Abortion Fallout Drama: In the scene where Brenda reveals her history, she goes from merely winsome to tragic, and is played as a sweet, brokenhearted girl who is still paying for a terrible injury in her past. Her greatest penalty is that her parents, after they arranged for her procedure, disowned her.
  • Abusive Parents: Frank's parents are actually very supportive of their son, even after their divorce, but his father engages in emotional abuse in one of his last scenes. Frank has been trying to stop his criminal lifestyle for a while now, but can't go through with it until his father tells him that it's alright to do so. Instead, Frank Sr. refuses and tries to use his son as a weapon against the government out of spite, because they didn't support him when his business went under. This did not happen in real life.
  • Actor Allusion:
    • When Hanratty is closing in at the engagement party, a dollar bill slips under the bedroom door and floats by him, just like a certain feather.
    • This comes seconds after another actor allusion, as Frank makes a hasty exit through a window, kissing Brenda before he goes into exile. After talking about the meaninglessness of his names, no less. Sound familiar?
    • Frank meets a little girl named Celine, just like the woman who sings "My Heart Will Go On" for Titanic (1997), another movie Leonardo DiCaprio starred in.
  • Actually Pretty Funny:
    • In the opening prologue where Carl prepares Frank for extradition, he thinks an ailing Frank is playing a Sick Captive Scam until Frank slumps to the floor, seemingly unconscious and spurring Carl to call for medical help. When everyone's eyes are briefly off Frank in the infirmary, he tries to escape (although doesn't get very far because he actually is sick at the moment); while the guards chase after him, Carl takes a moment to chuckle to himself at Frank pulling one over on him again.
    • Young Frank impersonates a substitute teacher for French Class: where he plays the role convincingly enough to lecture his students and hand out homework, hold Parent-Teacher Conferences, and even organize plans for a field trip to a French Bread factory. He gets in trouble with the school once they find this out an entire week later; Frank's parents make a show of being angry at him but Frank Sr.'s face becomes a proud smirk once they leave the principal's office.
    • When Carl confronts Frank Sr., the latter makes up a story that Frank Jr. made a fake ID to enlist and fight in the Vietnam War. Carl is rather amused by Frank Sr.'s audacity and can't help but grin as Frank Sr. tells his lie heatedly.
  • Adapted Out: Frank is an only child in the film. In real life, he was one of four children (he had two brothers and a sister).
  • Ambiguous Situation: It's not made clear if Brenda cooperated with the FBI to bring Frank in because she was coerced to, or willingly agreed to because she was heartbroken over everything Frank told her about himself being a lie. Since she never appears again after the scene in Miami, we also don't learn if she was able to keep her relationship with her parents or not.
  • Anachronic Order: The film skips around quite a bit. The movie starts with a clip of a reformed Frank appearing on To Tell the Truth, then skips back several years to a sequence with Agent Hanratty coming to interview Frank in a brutal French prison. It then skips back several more years to the beginning to start the main narrative about Frank and his life of crime. As the main plot unspools, the film periodically skips forward to show Carl bringing Frank back to the United States.
  • Anachronism Stew:
    • Pan-American Airways is constantly referred to as Pan Am, complete with its iconic logo. Pan American Airways was abbreviated as PAA until the Pan Am logo was introduced in 1972. Similarly, the TWA two stripe logo is shown on all TWA aircraft and airport locations, when it was introduced in 1975.
    • Hanratty explains Frank is being extradited "according to the European Convention on Human Rights." France did not ratify this convention until 3 May 1974, several years after this is set.
  • Animated Credits Opening: And one that evokes the classic work from The '60s of Saul Bass!
  • Anti-Villain: Frank Abagnale Jr. becomes an elusive Con Man who lives a rich life by stealing a million dollars from the government and the banks. He also came from a family that fell from grace and broke up, and started out with his schemes to support himself. He's never purposely malicious, more an irresponsible kid who should know better, tries to remain friendly with the officer pursuing him, and genuinely wants to stop his crimes by the halfway point but can't. He ends the movie being prematurely released from prison and inducted into the FBI Financial Crimes Unit with Hanratty's help.
  • Arc Words:
    • For the film's first half, Frank's promise to his father; "I'm gonna get it all back. All-All the jewelry, all the furs, everything, Dad. Everything they took from us, I'm going to get it back."
    • For the film's second half, Agent Hanratty's repeated question; "How did you cheat on the bar exam in Louisiana?"
    • When accepting an award, Frank Sr. tells the story of two mice who fell into a bucket of cream, one gave up and drowned while another kept swimming until the cream turned into cheese and was able to escape. The analogy is obvious but the context as applied to the characters is always left abstract, even as it is shared multiple times over the course of the film. The subtext here is that there isn't a point where Frank can just stop and everything will be okay.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: Frank confesses to Brenda he's not a doctor, lawyer, or a Lutheran and he's actually a young run-away; her response- "You're not a Lutheran?"
  • Artistic License – Gun Safety: Carl walks through a hotel with his gun up, finger on the trigger, and even sweeps it across a civilian. Other agents are similarly cavalier. This is, of course, set before many modern firearms practices were even established. In fact, most of the agents don't even use both hands (Carl does use the modern Weaver stance a few times, which was developed in the 50s but not common until the 70s). Carl is also apparently a Desk Jockey who doesn't use his service weapon much, as his hand is seen shaking when he searches through the hotel.
  • As You Know: Used in Hanratty's first scene after Frank begins his life as a con man. Carl briefing the agents regarding the still-unknown Abagnale also brings the audience up to speed on how Frank is successfully getting away with his forgery.
    Carl: All of this was in the report I filed two days ago, if you change [the routing number of] an oh-two to a one-two, that means that check which was cashed in New York does not go to the New York federal branch, but is re-routed all the way to the San Francisco federal branch. The bank doesn't even know the check has bounced for two weeks. Which means our un-sub can stay in one place, paper the same city over and over again while his checks circle the country.
  • Awesomeness by Analysis:
    • Hanratty runs on this trope. After getting a lead that Frank must be a kid on learning he used an alias from a comic book, Hanratty remembers that Frank referenced the Yankees and must be a runaway from New York. This helps him get a photograph from Frank's mother. He goes to Frank Sr.'s apartment to question him about his son's location. Frank Sr. tells a bald-faced lie that his son is in Vietnam; as he does so, Hanratty studies some mail. He memorizes the return addresses, knowing they must be from Frank Jr.
    • Frank isn't too shabby, either. When shown a check, he knows it's fake the instant he sees it because it doesn't have any perforated edges, then quickly identifies several other tell-tale signs, ranging from the thickness of the paper to the smell of the ink.
  • Backup Bluff: Subverted when Hanratty confronts Frank in France. He claims that the place is surrounded by French law enforcement, who are very upset that an American has come to their country to steal their money and will shoot on sight if Frank tries to escape; Frank's best bet is to surrender to Hanratty and be extradited to the United States for trial and punishment. They exit to a deserted street and it seems that Hanratty was lying the entire time, but then a swarm of French officers quickly surround them.
  • Bait-and-Switch:
    • Meeting up in a money printing facility in France, Carl tells Frank that a team of French police are outside, Frank thinks he's lying and has him promise on his daughter. Carl takes him outside in cuffs, where no French police are present. Franks says "That was really good, Carl". Seconds later, a horde of French police appears.
    • After Frank walks off his FBI job for one more jethop, Carl is holding a meeting about a new forger when a shot of a pair of legs running toward the briefing room. The door then bursts open to of the fraud agents.
  • Based on a Great Big Lie: A lot of the movie embroiders Abagnale's memoir—the fraught relationship with his father is fictional, Brenda is a composite of two different people described in Abagnale's book, etc. But later research has shown that most everything that the movie did take from Abagnale's book, in fact the whole book, is essentially made up. Abagnale never impersonated a doctor (at a hospital, at least note ). He never took the bar exam in Louisiana or practiced law. He didn't escape custody by climbing out of an airplane toilet—that's physically impossible. He never worked for the FBI as a consultant in fighting check forgery. While he did sometimes wear a pilot's uniform as part of his check kiting, he did not use it to hitch plane rides around the world. And he was convicted of forging not up to $4 million in checks, but only $1,448.60. Wikipedia has much more about this.
    • Perhaps the biggest example is that Abagnale is depicted pulling off most or all of his scams in The '60s when he's under 21. He was actually incarcerated at Great Meadow Prison in Comstock, New York, for three years from 1965 at age 17 until December 1968. He was then arrested for theft in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in February 1969, where he was sentenced to probation that June and fled to Europe, where he was arrested in September for theft, sentenced to several months in prison in France and Sweden and deported back to the United States in June 1970.
  • Bathroom Breakout: Frank escapes from a plane extraditing him back to the United States by unscrewing the toilet and escaping into the luggage area.
  • Batman Gambit: Frank generally relies on this and there are plenty of opportunities throughout the film for his plans to go awry. His charisma and tendency to luck out are frequently what saves him. When first confronted by Carl Hanratty he just happened to distract Hanratty from opening his wallet and blowing his disguise by pointing at a neighbor walking an elderly man to a car outside to continue the ruse.
  • Bavarian Fire Drill: Half of the cons.
  • Beat Them at Their Own Game:
    • Frank's in a hotel room wearing James Bond's suit, making out with a hooker when she gets up and negotiates him up to $1,000 for the night. Frank's about to walk downstairs to cash a fake check ... and she suggests signing the $1,400 check over to her in exchange for the $400 difference. In real life, this was part of Frank's downfall, as the girl gave the FBI a description of what he looked like. Prior to that, the FBI thought they were looking for someone older.
    • When Frank is practically begging his father to tell him it's OK to stop the cons, his father almost gleefully urges him to continue, feeling that Frank's crime is some sort of revenge on the government for his own tax problems.
  • Black-and-White Morality: This is what Hanratty firmly believes in until he discovers that Frank is redeemable.
  • Bluff the Impostor: Frank (posing as a lawyer) claims to have been taught by a professor who also taught his girlfriend's father, and her father asks what the professor's dog's name was. Frank, smelling a trap, replies simply that the dog had since died. The father remains suspicious.
  • Booked Full of Mooks: Frank makes plans to meet Brenda at Miami International Airport in order to escape his pursuers. However, when he arrives and observes the scene, he realizes most of the men hanging around the terminal are undercover police officers. Knowing Brenda has given him up, he leaves her behind to avoid being caught.
  • Boxed Crook: Either Frank works for the FBI, or he stays in prison.
  • Brick Joke:
    • After Hanratty's boss chews him out and clearly gets on Hanratty's nerves, Hanratty references his previous Precision F-Strike by going "Chief? Knock Knock."
    • From that same pair of scenes, Carl tells his fellow agents that if they just keep their eyes open and do their jobs, he'll buy them both a Good Humor bar, though at the time it seems like a throwaway condescending line. When they're back at the boss' office the two agents are munching on Good Humor bars.
    • When Frank pretends to be a substitute teacher, he says his name isn't pronounced "A-big-nah-leh", among other methods. When Carl and his partner find his mother, they read his surname on the list the same way.
    • At one point, Frank Sr. asks his son the reason the Yankees always win. He responds "Because they have Mickey Mantle?" and his father says "No, because the other team can't stop staring at those damn pinstripes." Later in the movie when Frank is on the phone with Carl, he repeats the same metaphor, saying the Yankees always win because no one can keep their eyes off the pinstripes. Carl responds, "The Yankees win because they have Mickey Mantle. No one ever bets on the uniform."
  • Briefcase Full of Money: Frank has two, which he has to hurriedly pack when he's fleeing from his fiancee's family's home right before Agent Hanratty shows up.
  • Brilliant, but Lazy: The undercurrent of Frank's entire character, the cons and other schemes he pulls off are incredibly clever and require a good amount of effort, but it comes from a place of trying to do the least amount of work possible. He passed the Louisiana Bar Exam legitimately after two weeks of hard study.
  • Call-Back: Frank watching Brenda's parents being cozy together in the kitchen, wistfully recalling his own parents before their divorce. To him, it's heartwarming and idealized, but neither one matched the reality - his parents' marriage was on the rocks due to Frank Sr.'s financial woes, something Frank Jr. can't accept up until she remarries several years later, while Mr. and Mrs. Strong disowned their daughter after she aborted her Child by Rape, assaulted by a friend of her father's. Both situations play on Frank's desire for a loving, nuclear family and his desperation amidst his criminality to make it happen.
  • Candy Striper: When young conman Frank poses as a doctor a number of Candy Stripers are seen working in the hospital. Brenda, a naive young Candy Striper (played by Amy Adams wearing pigtails and a set of fake braces to appear even younger) becomes Frank's Love Interest while in his doctor and later lawyer personas.
  • The Casanova: Frank Jr. becomes a ladies' man and has many passionate flings throughout the movie. He falls in love with one in particular and tries to start a new life with her, but the FBI catches up with him.
  • Cassandra Truth:
    • Sorry Carl, Frank was at the Stuyvesant Arms, room 3113. Not so sure about Las Vegas, though...
    • Carl refuses to believe that Frank passed the bar exam in Louisiana after studying for two weeks. The real Frank Abagnale says he passed legitimately at the third attempt after 16 weeks of studying. A loophole at the time allowed a person to re-sit the exam three times, and their marked exam papers were returned, so essentially they only had to correct the answers they got wrong.
    • Frank refuses to believe he can't fix his family despite everyone telling him it's over, and is convinced his mom will come back if he gets all the money and luxury their family had before the IRS nailed Frank Sr. When Frank sees his father for the first time after running away, Frank Sr. says his ex-wife will no longer speak to him. When they meet again, she's remarried. By the time he goes to her home while on the run, he sees she's had another child and seemingly moved on past Frank Jr.; coupled with learning of his father's recent death, Frank Jr. finally lets the truth sink in and lets Carl take him in knowing his old life is truly gone.
  • The Charmer: By the time he's impersonating an airline pilot and a doctor Frank is a master at this, and he knows it.
  • Character Name Alias: Frank uses the alias Barry Allen, secret identity of The Flash; Hanratty figures out that the person they're looking for is probably quite young based on this information. Later, while posing as a doctor, he uses the alias Dr. Connors, possibly a reference to the real name of Spider-Man villain the Lizard. When buying the suit James Bond wears in Goldfinger he uses the name "Mr. Fleming".
  • Chekhov's Gun: Frank's inspiration to pretend to be a pilot comes from witnessing a Pan Am Pilot enter an airport surrounded by beautiful flight attendants. He later surrounds himself with flight attendants as well to sneak right from under the FBI's nose.
  • Chew-Out Fake-Out: Frank Sr.'s response on finding out that Frank Jr. has been teaching his French class is just to smirk and laugh that his boy had the balls to do it.
  • Chronic Villainy: Frank eventually becomes addicted to the thrill of living like a playboy by conning money and eluding the authorities, while becoming tired from having to look over his shoulder all the time. He needs his father's support to stop, but Frank Sr. refuses for selfish reasons. Even when Frank tries to settle down his past catches up with him and he goes further into the criminal lifestyle. When Hanratty finally tracks him down in France, Frank almost seems like a thrill-seeking junkie, and Hanratty has to save him from getting himself killed. Subverted when he is released from prison to work for the FBI catching criminals like himself, and he almost goes back to his former life. However, when Frank makes a run for the airport, Carl tells him he knows Frank will voluntarily come back to work on Monday, because "no one's chasing you". Indeed, Frank comes back into work on Monday and greets Carl as usual.
  • Comically Missing the Point:
    Frank: Brenda, I don't wanna lie to you anymore, alright? I'm not a doctor, I never went to medical school. I'm not a lawyer, or-or a Harvard graduate, or a lutheran. Brenda, I ran from home a year and a half ago when I was 16.
    Brenda: Frank...Frank?...You're not a lutheran?
  • The Comically Serious: Carl is a Consummate Professional but its shown the check forgery department of the FBI is relatively new, with the more relaxed demeanor of his co-workers making for a lot of humorous bits. They comment on Carl not having much of a sense of humor, which leads to Carl telling a "Knock Knock" Joke with a Precision F-Strike.
  • Composite Character:
    • Carl Hanratty, mostly based on former FBI agent Joe Shea.
    • Brenda was a combination of two different girlfriends from the original memoirs.note 
  • The Con: Many, as Frank is constantly assuming fake identities in order to scam people out of money and perks and to pass bad checks.
  • Consummate Liar: Frank lies about his identity, profession, to the FBI, his fiancé's parents, almost anything really.
    Frank: People only know what you tell them.
  • Creator Thumbprint: A young protagonist dealing with his parents' divorce. Hi, Steven Spielberg!
  • Criminal Mind Games: Played with, as Frank calls Hanratty yearly at Christmas; not to taunt him, but because of crushing loneliness. Also inverted as Hanratty actually uses these calls to taunt him about eventually catching up to him ("I'm getting close, aren't I?")
  • Cut Lex Luthor a Check: Frank eventually gave up the life of crime and discovered he could make more money as a fraud consultant.
  • Death by Falling Over: Frank is devastated to learn his father died after falling down a flight of stairs in Grand Central Station.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance:
    • Frank's family apparently didn't call the cops when he ran away, despite the fact that he only had $25 to live on and they had no idea where he was. This was in line with the values at the time when Free-Range Children was more acceptable and kids often set out from home while they were minors.
    • Due to the time period, no one comments on the fact that Frank by seducing older women could have gotten them in trouble on charges of statutory rape since he only turns nineteen at the end of the movie.
  • Determinator: Carl Hanratty naturally. He tracks Frank even in France!
  • Did Not Get the Girl:This happens twice with Frank.
    • He advises a girl named Joanna at high school to fold the fake note she has to skip two periods. This apparently enamored her, and he references going on a date with her. Frank runs away before that date, and he asks his father to apologize to her on his behalf.
    • Frank falls in love with Brenda, becomes engaged to her and wants her to run away with him, but before they can, Frank notices FBI agents waiting to catch him and he is forced to leave her behind.
  • Distracted by the Sexy:
    • How Frank gave the entire FBI the slip at Miami Airport. Just get in the middle of a group of (wannabe) stewardesses, and you're invisible!
    • Is a major theme, taught to Frank courtesy of his father. "Why do the Yankees always win?" indeed.
  • Doctor, Doctor, Doctor: When Frank pretends to be a doctor.
  • Do Wrong, Right: After being busted for posing as a substitute teacher, Frank is left waiting outside the principal's office as his parents talk about the punishment. He sees a girl named Joanna prepare to hand in a note excusing her from class. Frank whispers at her to fold the note, to make it look more legitimate. He explains to a confused Joanna that kids put legitimate notes in their pockets, and they're usually crumpled. Joanna was impressed and did so; she also agreed to go on a date with him.
  • "Eureka!" Moment:
    • When Frank first meets Hanratty, he is masquerading as Secret Service agent "Barry Allen." Later, a kid points out that "Barry Allen" is the alter ego of comic book superhero The Flash, which makes Hanratty realize that Frank, despite his looks, is just a kid himself.
    • After seemingly losing Frank going off the grid in Europe, Carl takes one of Frank's recent checks to a check-printing press, who note that the machine being used is a "dinosaur" still active in only a handful of regions, including France. Carl suddenly remembers that Frank's mother spoke of meeting Frank Sr. at a village in France, and luckily for Carl, one of his agents took copious notes of the conversation, including the location, Montrichard.
  • Failed a Spot Check: Subverted as Frank Sr. ultimately dissuades Frank from giving him an expensive car as a gift because it would lead a blatant trail to his con jobs.
  • Fallen-on-Hard-Times Job: Frank Abagnale Sr. was apparently quite a succesful entrepeneur at one point, but by the start of the film he's being scrutinized by the IRS for sketchy book keeping, likely tax evasion. First he's forced to sell the old family home and downsize his store. The last time his son sees him, his business has apparently gone under, as he's now a deliveryman for the US postal service.
  • Five-Second Foreshadowing: Before the plane touches down at LaGuardia, Hanratty looks very uncomfortable after Frank tells him he wants to call his father. Moments later, he reveals to Frank that his father is dead. What makes this worse is that earlier he had made out that Abagnale Sr. was still alive. The truth is that he didn't want to break the sad news to Frank until they were closer to home.
  • Foreshadowing: The opening title sequence foreshadows several events that happen later in the film. For example, how Frank is still in school when he decides to impersonate a pilot (and that happens after he sees some flight attendants), that Carl starts following and investigating him around this time, how Frank first evades Carl, that Frank poses as a doctor and meets Brenda after a pool party, but that he has to leave her behind due to Carl still being on his tail.
  • Freudian Excuse: Frank comes from a broken home and he ran away since he couldn't deal with choosing one parent over the other.
  • Freudian Excuse Denial: In the book, Abagnale says he had a hard time when his parents divorced, but he also says more than once that it's no excuse for his crimes, and most other children from "broken homes" don't become con artists (including Frank's own siblings, who were Adapted Out in the film).
  • Freudian Excuse Is No Excuse: One judge spells it out for Frank when sentencing him; he may have been a minor who came from a broken family, but he showed disregard for the law while dealing with his pain.
  • Friendly Enemy: Frank Abagnale Jr. and Carl Hanratty. It's done in an interesting way early on. Frank calls Carl to apologize for the fact that Carl has to deal with his crimes. He's being totally sincere and even gives him his location, but Carl just thinks he's mocking him. It's one of the many things in the movie that show that while Frank may be a criminal mastermind, he's ultimately just a kid. Carl later realizes that Frank was sincere, and repays the favor by visiting him in jail regularly, with Christmas gifts.
  • Game Show Appearance: Frank Jr. appears on To Tell the Truth at the very beginning of the movie; real footage of Abagnale's appearance on the show from 1977 was used with Leonardo DiCaprio and other actors (playing the imposters) digitally inserted. The question Kitty Carlisle gives to the first imposter, and the response, is unaltered, but the first question posed to the real Frank Jr. was how long he stayed on the state attorney's staff without being caught, as opposed to the film's segue to the composite character Carl Hanratty. The film also has Abagnale and the imposters dressed as pilots, when only the real Abagnale wore a pilot uniform, the imposters were dressed as a doctor and a prisoner.
  • Genre Throwback: The film deliberately apes the late '50s-early '60s sophisticated thriller and crime movie genre, especially Topkapi, the original Ocean's Eleven, Charade, and many Alfred Hitchcock movies. The title screens are done in the style of Saul Bass and the The Pink Panther movies, and the score by John Williams is an Homage to Henry Mancini.
  • Hero Antagonist: Carl Hanratty is the FBI agent trying to stop the notorious con man Frank Abagnale that is our protagonist.
  • High-Class Call Girl: Frank meets one in a hotel, enjoys a night of sex, and then not only gives her a fake check but scams her into giving him $400 change for the fake check. He recognizes her as a model, so it's not quite clear if she's an escort or was just enamored by his rich guy persona.
  • High-School Hustler: Frank goes from pretending to be a teacher to get back at some bullies at his school to conning a million dollars.
  • Historical Villain Downgrade: The movie ignores Abagnale's cons he pulled on ordinary people, most notably the Campbell family who he wined and dined with their own money. There's also no mention of his sexual abuse crimes; he once infiltrated a college posing as a doctor hired by Panam. However, he wasn't trying to recruit various female students to become stewardesses as part of some clever Distracted by the Sexy scheme against the FBI, he was just there to perform "physical examinations" on them. Around 12 young women fell for the scam until Abagnale was discovered.
  • How We Got Here: A double whammy: we start with Frank appearing on To Tell the Truth, followed by a flashback to him in prison... followed by another flashback to 1963.
  • I Am One of Those, Too: Frank lies that he got his law degree from Berkeley. Brenda's father immediately tells Frank he got his law degree there too and starts asking about professors.
  • I Have No Son!: Brenda's parents disowned her after she had an abortion two years before she met Frank. This is averted after Frank is introduced to them.
  • I Never Said It Was Poison: "I never said your son was a criminal. I said he was in trouble."
  • Ignored Confession: At one point Frank tearfully explains to Mr. Strong that he's just a fraud in love with his daughter. Roger assumes the boy simply feels inadequate and is a romantic, rather than take it at face value.
  • Improbable Age: Despite looking older than a normal teenager, one of the trickier aspects of Frank's cons is that he has to talk himself up as a credible Secret Service agent, pilot, doctor, and lawyer at various points despite clearly being too young to be any of those. This comes to a crossroads when meeting Brenda's parents, where he has to pass himself off as a doctor and a lawyer.
  • In Medias Res: The film starts with an older Frank Abagnale in jail before going back to the very start. Occasionally the film cuts back forward to Carl and Frank on the plane to prison. Once the movie catches up to the plane scene Frank escapes the plane only to be later caught once more
  • Inspector Javert: Hanratty is very dead-set on capturing Frank and upholding the federal laws Frank broke in his "relatively victimless" crimes—even to the point of chasing him around the world if that's what it takes to get him. This goes away, however, after he catches Frank; when the French police arrest the kid, he lobbies for Frank to receive medical attention and extradition to the United States where prison conditions are relatively better. He's Frank's only visitor in prison, bringing him comic books to read as a Christmas present.
  • Internal Reveal: We see that Frank's mother has married Jack Barnes when Carl and his agents pay her a visit to ask about her son, but Frank himself doesn't learn this until he tries to coax his father to win her back and Frank Sr. has to break the bad news to him.
  • It's for a Book: More like It's For A School Newspaper Article. Frank pumps a Pan Am exec for info about how the airline industry works, using this tactic.
  • Justified Criminal: Frank starts out his career of conning people and counterfeiting checks after running away from home and trying to support himself. He gets less sympathetic as his crimes and the amount of money he has stolen increase, but he remains likable as a devilish rogue who outsmarts his enemies with sheer brains and bravado and also scores points for tiring of his life as a criminal.
  • Just Plane Wrong:
    • Frank escapes from custody by unscrewing the toilet in the bathroom, climbing into the landing gear wells on the wing. Toilets drain into holding tanks and are located inside the pressurized section of the fuselage, while the landing gear is in the unpressurized section with no connection between the two (bathrooms are located near the nose and tail of airliners, while the landing gear are on the wings in the middle of the fuselage).
    • When Frank is brought back to the Unites States, it's three different planes. The plane that lands is an Airbus A310, which turns into a Douglas DC-8, while the plane in-flight and the one Frank escapes out of is a Boeing 707. The Airbus A310 also first flew in 1982 and was never operated by TWA.
  • Kick the Dog: When Frank calls Hanratty in one scene to apologise, Hanratty tauntingly comments how Frank not only called to apologize but "because you have no one else to call" and laughs.
  • "Knock Knock" Joke: Hanratty has a splendid one after his new assistants show disdain over Hanratty's serious nature.
    Carl: Well, would you like to hear me tell a joke?
    His subordinate: Yeah, we'd love to hear you tell a joke.
    Carl: Knock knock.
    His subordinate: Who's there?
    Carl: (Beat) Go fuck yourselves.
  • A Lady on Each Arm: Frank uses this to walk through an FBI stakeout; the cops are too busy getting an eyefull of the pretty young stewardesses (actually schoolgirls conned with the promise of a job) to notice Frank. At the start of the scene Frank actually has two girls on one arm and three on the other, but they don't hold formation for long.
  • Language Barrier:
    • While searching for Frank in France, Carl speaks English slooow-ly and LOUDLY to the French officials. They continue to speak French and give no indication that they have understood him.
    • A weird unintentional example: It's implied that Frank understands French since he poses as a French teacher at the beginning of the movie, but the scene where the French police are arresting Frank gives no indication that he understands them; he doesn't hear French as English, nor are there subtitles, so it seems like it was just a coincidence that he was able to follow their commands.
  • Let Him Choose: Frank coming home to learn of his parent's impending separation and having the choice of custody forced on him is what leads to his running away and subsequent years of life as a con man.
  • Loveable Rogue: Frank Abagnale (winningly played by Leonardo DiCaprio). He's a very clever young man who successfully passes for a lawyer, doctor, and airline pilot, whilst committing a million of dollars worth of check fraud. But he only does this because he sees no other prospects for himself; what he longs for most is a stable family. Pursuing FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) comes to realize this, so arranges for Frank to eventually achieve a happy ending. This story has some overlap with Real Life.
  • Manly Tears: After being told by Carl that his father had died, Frank shuts himself in the bathroom and breaks down sobbing. This was after Carl had implied Abagnale Sr. was still alive, but he didn't want to say anything until they were closer to home.
  • Mismatched Atomic Expressionism: The intro to the film uses flat, palettized geometric animation to get the viewers in the mood of when this film takes place.
  • Missed Him by That Much: During the airport scene, Carl gets a call that they may have found Frank, just as Frank and the stewardesses are walking right behind him.
  • Mouthscreen: When Carl realizes Frank has "no one else to call", we get a close-up of Carl's mouth.
  • Never Trust a Trailer: Played for Laughs. The trailer makes it seem like Frank posing as a lawyer has plot significance, but it is only a quick gag.
  • No Sense of Humor: Hanratty, whose all-business demeanor irks his partners.
  • One Dialogue, Two Conversations: When Frank asks Brenda's father for permission to marry her. When Frank says that he isn't a doctor or lawyer but just a kid in love with his daughter, Brenda's father thinks Frank's only being sentimental. Also doubles as a Cassandra Truth, as Frank was pretty much confessing he was a fraud. Brenda's father misread it as sentimental.
  • Papa Wolf: Mentioned by Frank. Sr. when he lies to Hanratty that Frank is abroad in Vietnam and lied to get recruited. As Hanratty observes some mail and memorizes the addresses, Frank Sr. says that the man must not have kids because no sane parent would give up their child to the cops. Hanratty does have a daughter, and he admits that every parent wants to protect their child.
  • Parents as People: It's mentioned that Frank's parents were once in love, but they divorced after he lost his house and car. His mother has an affair and is clearly guilty when Frank discovers it but persists and eventually leaves Frank Sr. Either would have been fine with him choosing them as his primary guardian; Frank made the decision to run away rather than make a choice. Later, his mother offers to write a check to cover the money he's been stealing; Hanratty snarkily says it's $1.3 million, but he seems to understand the intention.
  • Parental Obliviousness: Frank's parents never seem overly concerned that their teenage son is a wanted felon being hunted by the FBI. His dad lies to Hanratty's face that Frank is in Vietnam to protect him.
  • Pastiche: John Williams' credit tune as well as the accompanying animation are a Shout-Out to The Pink Panther (1963).
  • The Perry Mason Method: Subverted. Watching episodes of the show and knowing a thing or two about spotting forgeries and lies does not help Frank prosecute a case. Largely because he overplayed his hand and forgot how much formal procedure there is involved in law practice.
    Judge: There is no defense, there is no jury. It's just me. Son, what in the hell is wrong with you?
  • Precision F-Strike:
    • Two words: "knock knock." "Who's there?" "Go fuck yourselves!"
    • There's even one in the musical when Carl Hanratty makes the connection between all of Frank Jr.'s fake names.
    • Before that, when Frank fools Carl into letting him go, Carl realises he's been duped after looking through the wallet, then throws it across the room, yelling "Oh, goddamn it!"
  • Pretty in Mink: Jennifer Garner plays a model, first seen in a mink jacket.
  • Real Person Cameo: The real Frank Abagnale plays one of the French police officers who finally capture Frank. He's also briefly seen in the game show that opens the film—he's the first person to talk before DiCaprio (whose face was digitally superimposed on the other person pretending to be Frank).
  • Reasonable Authority Figure:
    • Hanratty is a Jerk with a Heart of Gold that has a dry sense of humor, but we can see he is one of the good guys. He pursues Frank not because he has a vendetta, especially when realizing that Frank is a minor, but because it's his job. Due to being a divorcee, he takes the Christmas shift so his coworkers don't have to miss the holiday. When Frank is caught in France, Hanratty lobbies for him to receive medical care and extradition to the United States. He's also Frank's only visitor in prison, bringing him Christmas gifts and recruiting him for the FBI on seeing how Frank is depressed.
    • Hanratty's boss is this as well. He doesn't berate Hanratty for letting Frank walk away while posing as Secret Service; in fact, he advocates the opposite, that Hanratty shouldn't take it badly. When Hanratty says he needs to catch the guy, his boss advises him to not get obsessed, because he has a high success rate and one failure won't mar him.
  • Record Needle Scratch: We hear one in-universe when Frank comes back to the apartment while his mother is entertaining her new lover.
  • Red Sock Ruins the Laundry: An old woman mistakenly puts a red top in Hanratty’s white laundry, meaning that when Hanratty removes his laundry, it’s turned pink, much to his irritation.
  • Reformed Criminal: Frank, at the end of the movie and in Real Life.
  • Refuge in Audacity: The other half of the cons. Something Frank learned from his father plays into this as a bit of a Running Gag. "Why do the Yankees always win?" "Because the other teams are too busy looking at the damn pinstripes."
    • The entire movie. Independent investigations revealed that the overwhelming majority of Frank's stories, as depicted in the movie, couldn't possibly have happened.
  • Running Gag:
    • "Two little mice...", a mini-fable that Abagnale Sr. and Jr. draw upon to mirror their own tenacity, including Frank Jr. passing it off as a religious prayer at the Strong dinner table.
    • "Even better" when Frank lucks into a scenario that will pay him out and/or won't require a check from him.
    • "Why do the Yankees always win?", the philosophy of the Abagnales to look and sound their part, referencing the dynastic Yankees to the point that it felt like teams would cow to them just from "looking at those damn pinstripes".
    • "Is this yours?", the opening line of a Buy Them Off con the Abagnales use on female marks, pulling out a gold necklace they just happen to have in their pocket and noting that "it must've slipped right off your neck."
  • Sanity Slippage: When Carl corners Frank in Montrichard, France, knowing he's living off the grid running out of money and resources for more checks, Frank is no longer a smooth conman living in luxury, but holed up in a warehouse, disheveled and uncharacteristically frantic, desperately babbling to find a way to talk himself out of capture.
  • Sexy Stewardess: To complete his impersonation of an airline pilot, Frank hires pretty young women to pose as flight attendants. He told the girls they had won an internship to train as stewardesses. He engineered the whole scheme in order to be able to enter an airport crammed with FBI agents looking for him and walk Right Under Their Noses - knowing that they would never notice him with all those beautiful, vivacious young girls surrounding him! And as a Refuge in Audacity, knowing that the FBI agents would never suspect the conman sneaking into the airport to be the most obvious freaking guy in the place. Frank Jr. also manages to bed one early in the film, successfully pulling off his father's gold-necklace con on a flirty stewardess.
  • Sherlock Scan:
    • Frank himself demonstrates a highly acute attention to detail throughout the film, leading to how he's a quick study in self-taught forgery. He starts early in the film with informing a classmate that her fake "note from mother" is missing a crease to be believable since a kid would fold it over to put it in their pocket. By the third act, he can tell Carl and the FBI what's wrong with some other forged checks they're stumped over on sight.
      Frank: (takes a check the FBI is investigating) It's a fake.
      AD Marsh: How do you know, you haven't looked at it.
      Frank: There's no perforated edge, right? This check was hand-cut, not fed. (whips it in the air) The paper's double-bonded, much too heavy to be a bank check. (grazes his fingers over it) Magnetic ink, it's raised against my fingers, not flat. (smells the ink) This doesn't smell like MICR, it's some kind of, uh, some kind of drafting ink. The kind you get at a stationery store.
    • Hanratty being able to discern clues of Frank's whereabouts from his telephone calls; e.g. he figures out Frank's from New York from his mention of the Yankees, and that he's a kid from his use of the alias Barry Allen.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Frank uses the alias Barry Allen when pretending to be a secret service agent to escape custody. This is foreshadowed earlier in the film when a couple of issues of The Flash are seen at his bedside when he's still living with his parents.
    • Frank turns into a huge James Bond fan at the height of his pulling off his Pan Am pilot con game. (At one point early in his career, Spielberg wanted to direct a Bond movie). He even watches Goldfinger at one point and while being fitted for a suit, his alias is Mr. Fleming.
    • Frank watches Dr. Kildare to prep for acting like a convincing doctor, and does the same with Perry Mason later when pretending to be a lawyer.
  • Sick Captive Scam: Double Subverted. When Hanratty arrives at the run-down French prison to extradite Frank to the United States, he assumes that Frank's uncontrollable coughing is just him acting in order to attempt another escape. He's legitimately ill and has to be taken to the hospital after he collapses in front of Hanratty. He does attempt to escape while there, but he doesn't get any further than the end of the block before he collapses again. The cops don't even bother running to catch him; they walk up to him coolly and put a gun to his head.
  • Squick: In-Universe: When "Dr" Frank sees the young boy with a broken leg, bleeding, and moaning in pain, he is very squicked and has to hold it in until he gets the other doctors to diagnose the treatment before bolting out to throw-up.
  • Stating the Simple Solution: During the opening scene showing Frank's appearance on To Tell the Truth, panelist Kitty Carlisle Hart mentions that Frank is very talented and he could have gone into a legitimate career. On the game show, the impostor Frank says he needed the money. In the film, Frank started doing it to pay the bills but got addicted to the thrill of scamming that much money out of Pan-American Airlines.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome:
    • The toughest con Frank faces in the film turns out to be his very first one after running away from home; trying to get banks to accept his check. With no pre-established credit it turns out no matter what sob story he creates for himself, no bank is willing to cash his check on blind faith alone.
    • Frank at his engagement party, upon seeing the FBI storming the premises, runs after confessing to Brenda that he's lied to her about everything, but he loves her and wants to build a new life with her. He gives her enough money to buy a plane ticket in Miami, and asks her to run away with him in a few days. The FBI then enters the room where they were talking just as he hightails it out of the window. A heartbroken Brenda, who learns that her fiance was a teenager several years younger than her, is forced to cooperate with the FBI at the Miami International Airport to catch Frank, or else face prison time in turn. There is also the fact that he lied to her about who he was, which puts a damper on their relationship.
    • After travelling around Europe and America committing large scale check fraud, Frank is eventually caught and thrown into a French Hell Hole Prison. He gets an I Told You So from Hanratty.
  • Suspicious Spending: Invoked by Frank Sr when Frank wants to buy him a Cadillac. He turns down the offer, pointing out that showing up with an expensive new car when he's already being investigated by the IRS for tax fraud would likely land him in even more trouble.
  • Sympathetic Inspector Antagonist: Agent Carl Hanratty who is dedicated to his job and honoring the law. He also is the first person to treat Frank with genuine sympathy after he's caught.
  • Taught by Experience: Frank learning how to forge checks. He's stymied early on as a runaway trying to get by on bad checks that immediately bounce, but as he goes along, he learns the ins and outs of checks (including how they're cashed and how they're made) and hones his ability in forgery and how to cover his tracks. By the time he's imprisoned two years later, he already knows more about a fraudulent check on sight than the FBI agents paid on the subject simply from his experience of making checks himself.
  • Teen Genius: Frank.
  • Title Drop: Sort of. "You gotta catch me." Played straight in "Live in Living Color", the opening number of the Broadway musical - "Mix and match me / Try to catch me if you can".
  • Troubled, but Cute: Well, he's played by Leonardo DiCaprio, isn't he?
  • Villain Protagonist: Frank Abagnale Jr., the protagonist, is an adrift and young counterfeiter and con man who uses his natural cleverness to make some money, and his antagonist, Hanratty, is an FBI agent trying to, well, Catch Him if He Can. In the end Frank with Hanratty's support eventually goes straight.
  • Vomit Discretion Shot: Happens when Frank is visibly sickened by the sight of the boy's broken leg in hospital, and throws up in the janitor's closet after leaving the emergency room.
  • Wham Line: "Frank, your father is dead."
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • What happened to Brenda after Frank had to leave her behind?
    • What happened to those eight girls that Frank picked for the "Pan Am internship"?
      • They were later interviewed by the FBI, with some rather colorful language from the women involved.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: Frank learned everything he knows about being a doctor and being a lawyer from Dr. Kildare and Perry Mason respectively. His attempts to use this knowledge in actual medical and legal settings just end up confusing his colleagues and gets him chewed out by a judge.
  • You Can't Go Home Again: From the moment he runs away, Frank's driving force is to rebuild his happy family. He finally realizes that he can never have that again when he learns is father has died, and his mother has moved on with a new family. He finally stops running and allows Carl to take him in without a fight.
  • You Keep Using That Word: "Concur". Frank drops it in a conversation with one of the other doctors at the hospital, just because he thinks "Do you concur?" is a question that all doctors are supposed to ask each other. The word really just means "agree".
    (Frank watches a medical drama on television)
    Doctor 1: Do you concur?
    Doctor 2: I concur!
    (later, when Frank is called in to respond to an emergency at the hospital)
    Frank: Gentlemen. What, uh...what seems to be the problem here?
    Ashland: Bicycle accident. Fractured tibia, about five inches below the patella.
    Frank: I see. (Beat) Dr. Harris? Do you concur?
    Harris: Concur with what, sir?
    Frank: With what Dr. Ashland just said. Do you concur?
    Harris: Well... It was a bicycle accident. The boy told us.
    Frank: So you concur.
    Harris: "Concur"?
  • Younger Than They Look: Frank convinces people that he is a working professional in a variety of careers while still being just a teenager. After his first meeting with Frank, Hanratty pegs him in his mid-to-late twenties. This also helps justify casting Leonardo DiCaprio.


Video Example(s):


Alias Barry Allen

Hanratty is trying to track down a perp going by Barry Allen before he's told that "Barry Allen" is the civilian identity of The Flash. He then realizes they're chasing a minor.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (5 votes)

Example of:

Main / CharacterNameAlias

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