‘Catch Us If You Can’

Catch Us If You Can, directed by John Boorman, was released in Britain in April 1965, a couple of months ahead of Help! (It was retitled Having A Wild Weekend for its US release.) The film was conceived as a vehicle for the Dave Clark Five, a band that was decidedly in the second rank of British pop – although they achieved great success in the USA in the period of the ‘British invasion’, making no fewer than eighteen appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show. In fact, the band do not play musical performers, but a team of stunt-men, thereby slightly stretching my earlier definition of the ‘pop film’; although the soundtrack features four songs specially written for the film, as well as several of the band’s earlier recordings. (Clark himself had been a stunt man before moving into music.)

Anyone expecting a rather unpromising B-movie (as I confess I was) would probably find the film quite startling. It is shot in black-and-white, but as Andy Medhurst puts it, it provides ‘a liberating jolt of nowness’, especially in the ‘shiny plastic immediacy’ of its first thirty minutes: this is, he says, the moment ‘where the pop film becomes the Pop film’ – that is, a work that can be aligned with emerging movements in the visual arts of the time. To some extent, the film is influenced by A Hard Day’s Night. There are elements of Lester’s zany humour and cinematic trickery in the rather tiresome chase sequences that dominate the second half of the film; but, much more interestingly, it also builds upon its predecessor’s sceptical view of media and image-making, reflecting the ambivalence and irony that was central to much Pop Art.

Like some of the other films I’ve discussed (both Beatles films, but also Summer Holiday), the narrative takes the form of a picaresque ‘road movie’. Disaffected with his work, Dave Clark as ‘Steve’ absconds from his job as a stuntman filming an advertisement for meat, at the suggestion of the campaign’s star model, Dinah, a blonde Julie Christie type. The two drive around London, pausing to go scuba diving in an open-air pool and to find an orange tree in a botanical conservatory. They then start to make their way across the south of England, aiming to reach an island that Dinah is thinking of buying. They are pursued by two men working for the advertising executive who is leading the meat campaign, Leon Zissell: while Zissell is initially keen to recapture Dinah, he subsequently realises the potential for publicity, and tells the newspapers that she has been kidnapped (a specific echo of Summer Holiday).

In their travels, Steve and Dinah encounter a group of beatniks in some abandoned buildings on Salisbury Plain, which turn out to be a mock battleground for the army; and they are then picked up by a strange middle-aged couple who live in a smart house in Bath. Here they are joined by the other members of the stunt team, and attend a wild fancy-dress party at a costume museum. Eventually, with the police also in pursuit, they arrive at the island, only to discover that it is not really an island, but is dependent on the tides. When they wander into an abandoned hotel, they find that Zissell is waiting for them: at the end of the film, Dinah returns to Zissell, surrounded by journalists and photographers, while Steve drives off with the other band members in disgust.

The opening sequences of the film introduce the members of the stunt team – that is, the Dave Clark Five. The boys live in a converted church on a public housing estate, equipped with a trampoline and other pieces of gym equipment, as well as a range of technological gadgetry: its walls are covered, in Pop Art style, with collages of incongruous images and objects, and signs with slogans like ‘Thrills’ or ‘Ripe and Ready’. The set is reminiscent of the Beatles’ collective bachelor pad in Help!; while the low-key, absurdist dialogue and repartee as they prepare their breakfast echoes that of A Hard Day’s Night (both of which, of course, have echoes of Harold Pinter). The boys are seen exercising, and then driving off to work in a topless Mini-Moke, despite the fact that it is the depths of winter. After a scene on the set of the meat advertisement, Steve and Dinah escape in a stolen E-type Jaguar that has been used in the filming. There are extended montage sequences of London streets, including new tower blocks, flyovers and tunnels, street signs and advertising hoardings (particularly those for the ‘meat for go!’ campaign, which again feature very contemporary large scale images and slogans).

In these opening sequences, the film displays much of the modernist style and iconography associated with the ‘swinging London’ of the 1960s; as well as creating an image of youthful zest and vitality (the band’s stunt company is called ‘Action Enterprises Ltd.’). Yet, as it proceeds, its stance is revealed to be more critical. Pausing on their journeys across town, Dinah defaces one of the meat advertisements by drawing on her own face, and Steve throws paint at it. Their journey is intercut with scenes featuring Leon Zissell in his penthouse office, smoking cigars and symbolically looking down over the London cityscape. Zissell and his colleagues debate the motives for Dinah’s disappearance: one of them reports that Dinah has been spotted calling on people in the street to ‘change their way of life’. However, the advertising men see this in terms of image: ‘that’s why you chose her, wasn’t it?’ says one. ‘That’s her image. Rootless, classless, kooky, a product of affluence. Typical of modern youth.’ Zissell reassures his clients from the Meat Promotion Council that they will be able to make capital from the story of Dinah’s ‘abduction’ (and sell more meat); he tells them that advertising is not a game that should be played by the rules, but ‘a total war, that should be played with any weapons that come to hand’.

This is a war that Zissell ultimately wins. When he reappears at the very end, like some kind of evil mastermind, he gloats over the success of his plan: ‘the client is delighted, the agency is delighted, every butcher in the land will be delighted’. ‘Ours is a tasteless business’, he tells Steve and Dinah. When Dinah asks Zissell what she should tell the press, he agrees with Steve that she should tell the truth – yet his interpretation of the truth is almost a cynical parody of the film itself: ‘Deny the kidnapping. Say that was the middle-aged deadbeats’ misunderstanding of the spontaneous and impulsive spirit of youth, et cetera. You were just two young people who felt yourselves caught up in the mechanisms of mass communication.’ While Dinah is drawn back into his world – she is last seen disappearing into the pack of journalists – Steve’s only means of escape is to drive away across the beach into the distance. There is no triumphant victory for youth, nor indeed any romantic happy ending.

What motivates Steve and Dinah’s journey is clearly a desire to escape from this world of superficial imagery to a more authentic setting – not just to a rural environment, but even more radically, to an island. This sense of escape and freedom is cued by the airy, lyrical jazz music that accompanies their driving; and there is a striking contrast between the energetic, flashy editing of the London sequences and the calm of the snowy rural landscapes they eventually reach. They travel, in effect, from culture to nature. In one short scene, they are seen riding horses, and this is followed by a short lyrical montage just of the horses running free. There is an almost Zen-like attitude here: when Steve expresses his wish to get to the island, Dinah asks why he can’t just ‘enjoy the journey’ – and she later shows pity for Zissell, on the grounds that he too has ‘missed the journey’.

Yet when they arrive at a farm owned by one of Steve’s former teachers, they discover it has been turned into a kind of proto-theme park with a Wild West saloon and go-karting track. And with more than a hint of symbolism, it turns out that the island is not in fact an island at all: as the tide retreats, one can walk across to the mainland. Dinah draws the obvious parallel with advertising: ‘it’s not even a proper island – it’s just a gimmick in the sea.’ Yet if physical escape proves impossible, other kinds of escape seem no more valid. The beatniks Steve and Dinah encounter on Salisbury Plain are bizarrely stereotyped: they ask Steve and Dinah if they have drugs, although they also condemn them as ‘weekend ravers’; and they follow a ‘guru’ who rambles incoherently as Steve and Dinah make their exit.

The film’s apparent critique of image-making and consumer culture again has echoes of A Hard Day’s Night: Zissell is a worked-up version of the style guru whom George encounters – although his apparent obsession with Dinah, as he surrounds himself with enlarged images and tape recordings of her, gives him a more sinister edge. Yet the film goes a little further than this, playing with the relation between image and reality more broadly. At several points, we are left uncertain as to the reality of what we are seeing. This is particularly apparent in the scene on Salisbury Plain, where the army invades the abandoned buildings with grenades and rifles, and rounds up the beatniks (they also destroy Steve and Dinah’s E-type, although the pair manage to escape).

The wealthy middle-aged couple they meet in Bath, Guy and Nan, are also distinctly untrustworthy. Like Zissell, they both have a predatory, voyeuristic interest in younger people: Guy describes them as ‘collectors… of anything that takes our fancy – she has her pieces and I have mine’. Guy and Nan claim that they are fighting the ‘forces of corruption’, in the form of dry rot, woodworm and death watch beetles in their old house. ‘Isn’t it awful,’ Dinah says, ‘how everyone has to get old, and everything gets broken. Not much hope, is there?’ Guy responds, saying ‘young people are callously hopeful’, but Dinah rejects this. ‘Then you should be,’ Guy retorts. ‘If only to set us an example.’ To some extent, the film appears to imply that the older generation as a whole is not to be trusted; but any apparent hope in youth is no more than ambivalent.

Again, there is a considerable amount of play with the ‘image and reality’ theme here. Nan collects costumes, while Guy collects optical toys, which he calls ‘the Pop Art of history’: ‘these are just a few of the desperate measures that people have taken to immortalise the moment’, he says. When the whole group decamp to the fancy dress party, they wear the costumes of silent film stars – and in their efforts to escape the police and Zissell’s henchmen (not to mention the pack of journalists who are now following them), they go on to exchange costumes, crossing genders as they do so (the party itself seems to prefigure some of the ‘decadence’ of the later 1960s represented in films like Donald Cammell’s Performance). ‘Hardly anyone can bear reality,’ Guy pompously avers (with echoes of T.S. Eliot).

As this implies, the mood of existential disillusionment that recurs throughout Catch Us If You Can often seems closer to an art movie – like Polanki’s Repulsion, or even some of the works of Antonioni – than it does to a pop film. It appears uninterested in being a vehicle for the band: Dave Clarke remains difficult to read or engage with (although this is partly an effect of his acting), and the other band members are given very little to do. Although it has several elements that are reminiscent of the other films I have considered, in many respects it moves beyond them. It certainly shows the older generation in a negative light, but it also takes an ironic stance towards the idea of youth as therefore somehow free – not least by implying that this too is a kind of commercial construction. Catch Us If You Can may not be an ‘indigenous’ teen film, in Doherty’s terms, but nor is it merely ‘imperial’: it makes a strong critique of ‘the mechanisms of mass communications’, but it also seems to undercut this, in favour of a more general despair over the possibility of authenticity itself.


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