A land of lost content

Film - Philip Kerr enjoys Steven Spielberg's re-creation of a more innocent America

If you were looking for a visual metaphor to explain Steven Spielberg, you couldn't do better than Rosebud, the sled owned by the young Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane. On one level, it was a device to pull the story along; and on another, it was symbolic of a lost innocence of the kind that A E Housman was referring to in "A Shropshire Lad". Rosebud is explicitly evocative of a "land of lost content" and "happy highways where I went and cannot come again". All of which helps to explain why Spielberg once paid $55,000 for the Rosebud used in Welles's movie, and why it now hangs on the wall over the desk where he works.

Unlike Welles, Spielberg has never quite accepted that the happy highways where once he went cannot be revisited; and it has always seemed to me that, for much of his working life, Spielberg has been at pains to re-create that land of lost content - be it the Middle America he knew as a boy growing up in Cincinnati, or the B movies that he watched as a child.

Catch Me If You Can is set in the Sixties and is a wonderfully subtle re-creation of a more innocent time in America, when its citizens were still in love with the idea of foreign travel, much as they were impressed by a handsome man wearing the uniform of an airline pilot. Based on the breezy, true-life memoir of Frank Abagnale Jr, it is the story of how a bright, attractive 17-year-old from New York became one of the great con artists of the 20th century. Passing more than $4m in bad cheques along the way, he impersonated an airline pilot, a doctor and an assistant district attorney, all the while staying one step ahead of the FBI.

The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Frank, Tom Hanks as the FBI agent try-ing to catch him and Christopher Walken as Frank's ne'er-do-well dad - and it's the first time that Spielberg has tackled comedy and romance. It is also picaresque, which seems to mark another departure for Hollywood's number one director: I can't think of another picture that he has produced or directed in which a rogue has been the main character. But it all works so well that you can't imagine why Spielberg hasn't tackled this kind of thing before. There's no sense of this movie being an event, of it being anything other than what it is, which is just a pretty good 6f out of ten, light-comedy thriller.

For a change, DiCaprio plays to his strengths and seems perfectly cast as a smart, good-looking, 17-year-old posing as a man ten years older. DiCaprio himself is aged 28, but his strongest scenes are those with Christopher Walken, in which we are required to believe only that Frank is a 17-year-old who loves his profligate father; and, ironically, if the film does have a weakness it is that the baby face which makes Leo such a convincing 17-year-old causes you to question that he could ever pass for anyone more grown-up. Hanks is excellent as Frank's nemesis, the relentless FBI agent Carl Hanratty. But it is Walken who steals this picture from under the better-paid noses of Hanks and DiCaprio, with a performance of enormous subtlety and charm; and it comes as a very pleasant surprise to find Walken given a real role, instead of the cameos - in True Romance, for example, and Pulp Fiction - for which he has become better known.

Looking at Walken's wonderfully malicious face, it is easy to be reminded of DiCaprio; indeed, one of the characters in Catch Me If You Can observes of Frank Jr, how much he's beginning to look like his father. And it's true: back in the days of The Deer Hunter (1978), Walken - then aged 35 - was almost as pretty as DiCaprio is now. For Leo's sake, I hope the future holds better than it did for Walken, who has had to make a living playing horrible, dreadful villains. But for all good-looking people, I should think that being on screen is a kind of curse and, perhaps, this is one of the reasons we find the lives of cinema actors so fascinating. Whenever I look at a film starring some handsome actor or beautiful actress, I am reminded of Dorian Gray first seeing his own picture. "How sad it is! How sad it is! I shall grow old and horrible and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day . . . "

Leo, enjoy it, while you can.

Catch Me If You Can (12a) is on general release