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White Collar and Catch Me If You Can

on Wed, 06/01/2011 - 00:00

In the pilot episode of the USA Network drama White Collar, convicted forger Neal Caffrey makes an offer to Peter Burke, the FBI agent responsible for his incarceration—Caffrey will assist Burke on his cases in exchange for not having to serve out the remainder of his sentence behind bars. “You can get me out of here,” the felon tells the FBI agent. “There’s case law, precedent. I can be released into your custody.”

Arguably the most famous precedent that Caffrey alludes to involves another forger and conman, the real life Frank Abagnale, Jr. During the mid-to-late 1960s, Abagnale roamed the United States while passing off counterfeit checks in practically every city he traveled. Not content with breaking the law in just one country, Abagnale likewise made his way across Europe, swindling millions of dollars in the process. In addition to check fraud, he ran numerous cons and masqueraded as a Pan Am Airlines pilot, medical doctor, university professor and even passed the bar exam in order to gain employment in a state attorney general’s office. Amazingly enough, he accomplished all of the above before his twenty-first birthday.

After his eventual capture and conviction, Frank Abagnale worked as both a consultant for various financial institutions on fraud prevention and a teacher at the FBI Academy. In 1980, he published an account of his early life in the book Catch Me If You Can and was further immortalized in 2002 with the release of a screen version directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks. Near the end of the film, the FBI agent who captured Abagnale makes the same offer that Neal Caffrey suggested to Peter Burke—an offer that is also ultimately accepted.

Having once been a professional con artist, much of the narrative within both the book and movie must be taken with a grain of salt. Although the original Catch Me If You Can is in the style of an autobiography, in reality the majority of it was “ghost written” by co-author Stan Redding. In September 2002, Frank Abagnale posted on his company website that he was “interviewed by the co-writer only about four times. I believe he did a great job of telling the story, but he also over dramatized and exaggerated some of the story.”

The film version, meanwhile, contains the tag that it was “inspired” by the book and thus not “based” on it. While many events are contained within both versions, the circumstances and situations in which they appear in the movie do not always correspond to those in the written work. Still, both accounts paint a picture of Frank Abagnale Jr. that complement the fictitious life of Neal Caffrey and thus makes White Collar at the very least the bastard child, if not a direct descendent, of Catch Me If You Can.

In his book, Frank Abagnale writes that there are three requirements necessary to become a successful conman and that “any one of the three, or the scantiest combination of the three, can pay off like three bars on a slot machine.” Based on Catch Me If You Can, it is obvious that Abagnale was blessed with each of those ingredients, but the episodes of White Collar likewise make it clear that Neal Caffrey was born of the same pedigree as well.

“Top con artists, whether they’re pushing hot paper or hawking phony oil leases, are well dressed and exude an air of confidence and authority,” Abagnale begins. “They’re usually, too, as charming, courteous and seemingly sincere as a politician seeking reelection, although they can, at times, effect the cool arrogance of a tycoon.”

Charm is obviously a forte of Neal Caffrey. Dressed in stylish, Rat Pack-era attire and exhibiting a calm, at ease demeanor, the naturally good-looking Caffrey often utilizes the flash of a smile to both “get his way” and “get his way out of” any situation. Through multiple seasons of White Collar, he likewise uses “an air of confidence and authority” to sell stock via telemarketing and even masquerades as a car salesman.

The second key to becoming a successful conman, meanwhile, is observation. “Observation is a skill that can be developed, but I was born blessed (or cursed) with the ability to pick up on details and items the average man overlooks,” Abagnale states. That ability enabled Frank Abagnale to not only fake various degrees from numerous universities but also allowed him to briefly work as a doctor at an Atlanta hospital and pass the bar exam in yet another southern state.

During the film version of Catch Me If You Can, his character comments that he studied for two weeks before taking the exam and was able to pass on his own, without cheating. In the book version, meanwhile, it took Abagnale three tries before finding success. In either case, it is still quite a feat. “Within two weeks I received a handsome certificate attesting to the fact that I had been admitted to the state bar and was licensed to practice law,” he writes. “I hadn’t even finished high school and had yet to step on a college campus, but I was a certified lawyer!”

Neal Caffrey likewise never finished high school but received three MBAs and three doctorates during his conning career.

“The third factor is research, the big difference between the hard-nosed criminal and the super con man,” Abagnale concludes. “A hood planning a bank holdup might case the treasury for rudimentary facts, but in the end he depends on his gun. A con artist’s only weapon is his brain. In my heyday as a hawker of hot paper, I knew as much about checks as any teller employed in any bank in the world and more than the majority.”

In the film version of Catch Me If You Can, an FBI agent asks an incarcerated Abagnale for his opinion on a potentially fraudulent check. “It’s a fake,” he quickly responds before going into detail. “There’s no perforated edge, right? The check was hand-cut, not fed. Paper’s double bonded, much too heavy to be a bank check. Magnetic ink, it’s raised against my fingers instead of flat. And this doesn’t smell like MICR, it’s some kind of a drafting ink, the kind you get at a stationary store.”

During season two of White Collar, meanwhile, an undercover Neal Caffrey is asked to pick out the fake ID amongst three drivers licenses. “They’re all fake,” he replies before likewise going into detail. “The hologram on the Alabama license is cemented with the wrong base. The UV ink should be mixed at a five-to-one ratio, this looks like three-to-one. The laminate on the California is too thick and last time I checked Illinois is spelled with two ‘L’s, not one.”

Obviously both Frank Abagnale and Neal Caffrey know their craft.

In addition to the two professional conmen, there are also similarities between the FBI agents responsible for their capture. Abagnale changed the names of the real life people in his book, referring to his nemesis as Sean O’Riley. The movie version of Catch Me If You Can, on the other hand, named the Tom Hanks character Carl Hanratty. It does not matter the moniker, however, as each have a striking resemblance to Peter Burke of White Collar.

“O’Riley was a tall, dour man with the countenance of an Irish bishop and the tenacity of an Airedale, an outstanding agent dedicated to his job, but an eminently fair man in all respects,” Abagnale writes. “I came to admire O’Riley, even while making every effort to thwart his task and to embarrass him professionally. If O’Riley has any personal feelings concerning me, I am certain animosity is not among such emotions. O’Riley is not a mean man.” One can hear Neal Caffrey making the same comments about Peter Burke.

Burke also shares an embarrassing moment with Carl Hanratty from the film version of Catch Me If You Can. In the movie, Hanratty believes he has Frank Abagnale cornered in a hotel room only to find the suspect pretending to be a secret service agent. During a flashback episode of White Collar, meanwhile, Caffrey approaches Burke and inquires about some forged bonds he had heard the FBI agent talking about. Just as Hanratty accepted the masquerading Abagnale’s tale of being in law enforcement, so too did Burke not realize that he was shaking hands with the forger he was hunting down.

None of this is to suggest that White Collar is a mere rip-off of Catch Me If You Can. During his criminal days, for instance, Frank Abagnale was a loner who only occasionally—as well as temporarily—found himself in any sort of long-term relationship with a member of the opposite sex. Neal Caffrey, on the other hand, discovered both love in the form of Kate Moreau and friendship in the guise of his one-time mentor Mozzie. The similarities of the main characters thus relate to their abilities, not their personas, but the same DNA runs through both narratives nonetheless. White Collar may not be Catch Me If You Can, but it still complements the story of Frank Abagnale Jr. while likewise standing on its own merits in the process.

Anthony Letizia

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