In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.
Urban legends and false factoids rarely get past my bullshit meter, but I confess that I was surprised, a few years back, when I finally learned that there isn’t any spike in the suicide rate during the Christmas season. That one just seemed so damn credible. If you’re feeling lonely and depressed, the constant reminder that everyone else is experiencing togetherness and holiday cheer can’t help but rub salt in the wound; it’s not hard to imagine people getting fatally despondent when surrounded by a warm fuzziness from which they feel cruelly excluded. Statistics tell a different story, as it turns out—if anything, there’s arguably a slight dip in the suicide rate and other indicators of mental imbalance (e.g., admissions to psych wards) around Christmas, which some attribute—pretty speculatively, I must say—to the presence of family and friends. Anything that sounds so plausible, however, is likely to persist, no matter how many times it’s debunked.
The movies don’t help, either, having thoroughly swallowed this idea. I write about a Christmas scene for this column every December, and they’ve mostly been melancholy pieces. One explored the depressive aspects of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” as first performed by Judy Garland in Meet Me In St. Louis. Another discussed The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg’s bittersweet yuletide ending. Two words: Bad Santa. Hell, not even the beloved It’s A Wonderful Life got spared—I called it “one of the grimmest, most despairing portraits of middle-class compromise ever produced by Hollywood.” Maybe I should change it up this year, write about something festive and heartwarming? (“Now I have a machine gun. Ho-ho-ho.”)
Nah. Let’s lean into the curve and take a look at a scene that’s pure holiday loneliness: one of the annual Christmas Eve phone calls between con man Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) and FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) in Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can. The movie takes place over several years, and Frank makes a habit of calling his nemesis every December 24th, in what becomes an odd show of mutual respect and admiration. The most significant call, however, is the first one, in which Carl quickly deduces the real reason why Frank chose to reach out to the man pursuing him. Take a look:
The first thing that jumps out about this scene, which begins with Carl answering the phone in the FBI field office, is how dark it is. It’s still daylight outside, as the view through the windows makes clear, but you wouldn’t guess that from the deep shadows within; Spielberg’s regular cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, avoids the penetrating-shafts-of-light effect he often employs, allowing Hanks to be illuminated primarily by a small desk lamp. (Look closely and this seems like a bit of a cheat—there must be another light source somewhere, given the lamp’s downward angle. Either that or it’s a 1,500-watt bulb.) To underscore the gloom, Carl is listening to Bing Crosby’s rendition of “Mele Kalikimaka,” one of the very few Christmas songs that calls warmth and sunshine to mind rather than snow. And Frank’s hotel room, when we see it a moment later, isn’t much more inviting. You could watch this scene with the sound off and still get the basic idea (with help from a mini-Christmas tree): It’s the most funereal time of the year.
And, of course, both men are alone. For Frank, this is essentially an occupational hazard: His life consists of being perpetually on the move, posing as somebody he’s not, and it’s tough to sustain any meaningful human contact under those circumstances. Even more poignant, though, is Carl’s situation: He’s volunteered to work on Christmas Eve so that men with families can be at home with them. (The gender language is period-accurate. Catch Me If You Can takes place mostly in the ’60s; the FBI Academy didn’t start admitting women until 1972.) Apparently, “men with families” includes every single FBI agent in this office save for Carl Hanratty, as there’s not a soul working alongside him. This seems fairly unlikely, but the scene wouldn’t be nearly as effective with an extra parked at one of the other desks, even at a distance from Carl. Spielberg and Kaminski want to visually emphasize both men’s solitude, which is both text and subtext here; no distractions are permitted. (DiCaprio, who’s in a room that’s too small to engulf him, is photographed almost entirely in claustrophobic close-up, in order to avoid any sense of coziness.)
Why is this phone call happening in the first place? Frank insists multiple times that he’s calling to apologize for their previous encounter—Carl had found Frank in Los Angeles, but Frank managed to convince Carl that he was a Secret Service agent named Barry Allen who was also on Frank Abagnale’s trail, and that his partner already had Frank in custody. Given everything we know about Frank’s personality, this seems like it might genuinely be the case—certainly, he’s not the type to gloat by way of feigning an apology. Note, however, how violently Carl rejects this ostensible peace offering. At first, one might assume that he feels too much contempt for the criminal on the other end of the line to accept, or that he needs to maintain his perception of Frank as the bad guy in order to do his job effectively. That’s not it, though. What Carl can’t abide is the notion that he’s pitied. “You do not feel sorry for me,” he snaps, and then somewhat pathetically claims that he knew “Barry Allen” was Frank all along (though he apparently is unaware that Barry Allen is also The Flash). Frank, for his part, treats Carl surprisingly gently during this exchange. Not only does his apology sound sincere, but he declines to mock Carl’s obvious lie, instead quietly noting that people tend to believe what they’re told. He shows some compassion.
The idea that he’s pitied by the crook he’s chasing still clearly stings Carl, who immediately thinks of a way to get revenge. Projecting his own loneliness across the phone line, he theorizes aloud (his mouth in extreme close-up, looking downright predatory) that Frank has called an FBI agent he’s met once in his life because he has nobody else to call on Christmas Eve. Frank instantly hangs up, furious, and editor Michael Kahn (and/or somebody in the sound department) pulls off a truly haunting effect, cutting quickly to Carl reacting to the hangup, then back to Frank, whose telephone’s bell, jarred by the violence of the handset being slammed down, can still be heard in mid-echo. That sound, more than anything else in the scene, symbolizes the extent to which both of these men are completely cut off, at a time when others are gathering together. Neither is down enough to consider suicide, but seasonal holiday depression—whether it really exists or not—has rarely been so starkly portrayed. So it’s no surprise that the scene concludes on a note of schadenfreude, with Carl cackling to himself, turning the music back up, and clapping his hands in triumph as he sings along. Discovering that he’s not alone in being alone makes him feel less alone.