Tone Poem Tuesday

How about some film music today? And some John Williams?

Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can is one of his more underrated movies, it seems to me; it doesn’t come up in conversation all that much, but I think it’s just terrific. It tells the story of a young man named Frank Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio) who discovers that he has a gift for larceny and for making people believe whatever he’s telling them. Frank uses this to escape a home life that he thought was normal but is now realizing is very toxic, and as he makes his way through life cashing fake checks and passing himself off as an airline pilot and a lawyer and a doctor, he inevitably attracts the attention of a particularly focused FBI agent named Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks). The cat-and-mouse game between Frank and Carl unfolds throughout the movie, and quite brilliantly the movie develops the theme that these two men somehow become dependent on one another. In the end (spoilers, I guess, but the movie’s 18 years old and it’s based on true events, anyway–Frank Abagnale is a very real former thief and con-man who has since made millions as a security consultant), Carl captures Frank and then brings him on board his own team at the FBI.

There’s a wonderful scene in the middle of the movie where, on Christmas night, Frank calls Carl on the phone. Frank is sitting alone in a hotel room somewhere, and Carl is sitting alone at his desk in a deserted FBI office. A somewhat pained conversation takes place; Frank wants to end the chase but he doesn’t want to get caught, either. He thinks he’s calling Carl to taunt him, but Carl is starting to know his man and has a moment of insight:

Carl: I’ll tell you what I am sure of: you’re gonna get caught. One way or another. It’s a mathematical fact. It’s like Vegas: the house always wins.

Frank: …Well, Carl, I’m sorry, but I-I have to go.

Carl You didn’t call just to apologize, did you?

Frank: What do you mean?

Carl: [laughing] You have no one else to call!

That’s a great moment. The relationship between Frank and Carl isn’t so simple as, say, Valjean and Javert. Both Frank and Carl see themselves as Valjean, and both see the other as Javert. It’s quite a brilliant relationship.

John Williams’s score for Catch Me If You Can is something of a departure for the great composer, who at this time was in his Harry Potter and the Star Wars prequel phase. Instead of an orchestral epic, Williams returned to his roots as a studio musician in the 50s and 60s, before he really emerged as a composer in the 70s. The score is full of 60s-sounding jazz, with frequent use of melodic percussion, finger snaps, and prominent work for solo saxophone. He writes two bouncy themes, one somewhat dark and one that’s incredibly fun, highlighting the dual sides of the film’s heist story. But he also leavens all this with some deeply introspective music that draws attention to the loneliness at the heart of each of the two men at the center of the story. The hunter and the hunted are both deeply unhappy, and both realize eventually that all they have is the hunt…until our cop, Carl, the more mature of the two men, realizes that they can work together on a different kind of hunt.

One more thing before the music: Catch Me If You Can has one of the best last scenes I know. Carl and Frank are sitting down, comparing notes over a newly-emerged check fraud case that has landed on Carl’s desk, and as they talk, the camera pulls away, across a bustling FBI field office. Frank gives the movie’s last line, which is fantastic:

FRANK: Now all we gotta do is catch him.

What a great movie.

Back to the music: this performance, which I just found a couple hours ago as I was writing, is a selection of cues from the film, performed by a student orchestra in Poland, almost as a Concerto for Saxophone and Orchestra. It’s an absolutely wonderful performance, and as I write these words, I’m listening to it for the third time today. Here is a suite from John Williams’s score to Catch Me If You Can.

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