Spielberg Roundup, II: ‘Dumbo’ in ‘1941’; ‘Goldfinger’ in ‘Catch Me If You Can’; ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ in ‘Munich’

When we left Steven Spielberg, he was putting various movies and TV shows into Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which was his second blockbuster in a row, after Jaws. Their success gave him permission to try something completely different, 1941, which I didn’t see when it came out in 1979 and can now report is his mashup of The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, in being a madcap, star-studded, slapstick movie about an aborted invasion of the U.S. Also like IAMMMMW (there’s no way to sugarcoat this), it is a mess.

The movie-in-movie scene is one of the quieter ones, and one of the more appealing. General Joseph Stillwell (Robert Stack) — who was actually stationed in California in 1941 — is portrayed as a movie buff and a softie. He sneaks into a Hollywood cinema to see Disney’s 1941 release.

That’s right, Dumbo. It makes no sense, but I guess it’s the ultimate kitchen sink in this very kitchen-sink movie.

Flash forward a quarter of a century or so. Spielberg has achieved his status as the ultimate popular entertainer, eager and able to explore a variety of cinematic forms and historical periods. Catch Me If You Can (2002) is firmly set in that moment when the early ’60s was about to turn into the middle ’60s, that is to say 1964. And what better film to stand for a certain aspect of that moment than … pause for bass line and Shirley Bassey voice … Goldfinger. I well remember the excitement when this third Bond film came out, what with Sean Connery at the peak of his form (never mind the toup), the double-entendre character names (well, one character), and the iconic cars, props and set pieces. How were we to know that the moment would pass and become passe in an instant — and the movie turn into as much a period piece as Connery’s baby-blue terrycloth swimming ensemble?

In this clip, young con man Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) hears himself described as “James Bond of the sky.” Then quick cuts to Goldfinger (Gert Frobe is the other guy in a swim outfit), and a dolly-shot zoom in on DiCaprio watching the movie in a theater.

As you can see, even more humorous edits ensue, culminating with DiCaprio (or his double) at the wheel of an Aston-Martin tooling through New York. It’s an entertaining sequence, yet my ultimate reaction is that it probably wasn’t worth the expense of the dolly shot, licensing Goldfinger and John Barry’s Bond music, and putting the car and a period setting in the middle of Manhattan. Not to mention the suit. Of course, if you’re Spielberg, what’s a few dollars more in the budget?

In Munich (2005), the movie-in-movie is an easy-to-miss grace note. Spielberg has frequently talked about how much he was influenced by John Ford, once saying, “I try to rent a John Ford film, one or two, before I start every movie. Simply because he inspires me and I’m very sensitive to the way he uses his camera to paint his pictures.” He used The Quiet Man in a key scene in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Munich is about Israel’s targeted assassination of those it suspected of involvement in the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre. More broadly, it’s about the complicated morality and personal costs of such an enterprise.

In an early sequence, the Israeli operatives are following a Palestinian translator and poet living in Rome, who is on their list. We watch them watching him as he goes into a small corner store and buys some groceries. There’s a small TV playing. Presently, the man leaves the store and is murdered.

You wouldn’t know it because the TV is in fact so small, but the film that’s shown is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), one of Ford’s profound meditations on violence, its costs and its arguable necessity. I believe it’s my favorite movie-in-movie in all of Spielberg.