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The Peculiarities And Roles Of Forensic Semiotics

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The subject of criminology is often seen as more of a scientific field and the popular media that engages with crime sources their material from crimes that had occurred or theories that engage with deviance and criminology. However, the emergence of forensic semiotics have placed a new emphasis on the study of the relationship between criminology, forensic sciences, and the portrayal of crime in popular media. The study of forensic semiotics can contribute significantly to the study of crime detection and understanding the meaning of crime (Danesi 26). Through using Catch Me If You Can’s (2002) engagement with the signs of deception, detection processes and psychoanalytics, I argue that the value of forensic semiotics is demonstrated through exploring the difficulty of catching crime and understanding the relational aspects behind the meaning of crime as it achieves the perfect balance between first and second order forensic semiotics.

The theoretical background of understanding the forensic semiotics is based on its first and second order. According to Danesi, first order forensic semiotics refers to how insights from evidence that are collected by forensic scientists can aid crime detection such as through helping “interrogators and investigators understand how facial expressions, gesture, language, and so on can be used to recognize deception and identify perpetrators” (27). Meanwhile, second order forensic semiotics refers to the synergy formed between gauging “the connection among crime, fictional depictions of it, and cultural definitions and perceptions of crime” (Danesi 27). In a way, there is a sense of partnership that has been established between the police and media as they investigate crime in tandem through both the reality and fictional dimensions of crime (Danesi 27). The argument to be made here is that Catch Me If You Can (2002) creates an excellent balance in demonstrating both first and second order forensic semiotics as the first order reveals the difficulty in catching criminals, while the second order seeks to understand the meaning of crime through exploring its relational aspects as it highlights the social formation of deviance and the relationship between the investigator and the criminal.

For context, Catch Me If You Can (2002) is a film based on the true story of Frank Abagnale Jr., starring Leonardo Dicaprio as Frank, Tom Hanks as Carl Hanratty (fictional FBI character but based on real characters that led to his arrest), and directed by Steven Spielberg. The film traces the development of Frank who began to con and use confidence tricks as early as sixteen years old following the divorce of his parents. He would first begin with writing his own personal cheques, then impersonating airline pilots and forging Pan Am payroll cheques. As his crimes catch the attention of the FBI, Frank begins to impersonate a doctor, and then a lawyer, falling in love with hospital worker, Brenda. However, Carl closes in on Frank and forces Frank to flee to Europe. Frank continues to forge checks in Europe but is eventually caught by Carl in France. Frank is eventually escorted back to the United States but after finding out that his father had died, Frank escapes the airplane through the toilet. He runs to his mother’s house and sees his half-sister through the window before surrendering to the police that had arrived. Frank is sentenced to twelve years but Carl worked to have him serve the remainder of his sentence through working for the FBI. While their working relationship continues, Frank becomes increasingly bored of his position and wishes to break free again. Carl intercepts Frank attempting to fly as an airline pilot and becomes worried at first when Frank doesn’t return to work. However, Frank eventually appears and the movie concludes with a short description of the Frank in real life working as a security consultant.

First, the film engages with a reflection on the processes in which first order forensic semiotics are being developed while highlighting the difficulties of crime detection in real life. There are two main forms of deception that the film engages with: lying as a con man, and forgery. Unbeknownst to the common observer, there is purpose behind the acting of Dicaprio as Frank when he engages in lying such that he overcomes the semiotics of deception in order to deceive Carl. Danesi engages in a wide range of verbal and non-verbal semiotics relating the process of lying and lie detection. These include the physiological changes as mediated by the Autonomous Nervous System (ANS) as it becomes the source of L-signs such as “sweating, pupil dilation, goose bumps, among others” (32). Furthermore, it can also be combined with the use of facial expressions, eye contact, and head movement to help with detecting deception because to only interpret one out of context would be virtually useless (Danesi 42). Where these semiotics are being used to identify if an individual was lying, someone could also steer clear of revealing these signs or creating the impression of truthfulness in taking advantage of it.

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In each of these categories for the semiotics of deception, Frank had been extremely effective in avoiding them to convey the semiotics of truthfulness. The most ridiculous but also humorous sign of deception is when Frank is caught by Carl at the hotel but Frank pretends to be a secret-service agent and is able to escape capture. From the audience’s perspective and even Carl, there is almost great certainty in Frank’s capture because he is being caught red-handed. However, he successfully deceived Carl because rather than instigating the fight or flight response that is most common with the ANS when being confronted by the police, Frank chooses somewhat of a third option. Frank’s decision to pretend to be a secret service agent highlights how the most ridiculous approach was effective in his instance because it was something that was entirely unexpected. Not only did the audience not expect this, but Carl did not as well. The process of lying also steered clear of the semiotics of deception as Frank engaged in eye-contact, maintained a posture of confidence, and spoke with the same air that one would expect from another law enforcement official. In this sense, it highlights one of the difficulties in the forensic science and first order forensic semiotics where the interpretation of signs is based on existing data that had been gathered. When observations are made from data and instances that are entirely foreign, then the investigator is fallible to deception. Carl, who did not have any idea of what Frank looked like, was unable to realize that he was being lied to. There were also no signs for him to detect that would suggest deception, as all observations had pointed to truthfulness. Such techniques were replicated throughout the movie when Frank engaged in cons and confidence tricks as he avoided the semiotics of deception but the instance of lying to Carl as a secret service agent is the most impressive and humorous of them all.

While there is indubitably an element of luck in Frank deceiving Carl and the exaggeration that may need to be acknowledged from the film’s purpose and role as mass media, it ultimately highlights the difficulty of capture criminals. This is one of the more effective features of the film in relation to forensic semiotics as it provides a window as to the difficult reality of detecting lies and thus catching criminals. As Danesi writes, “to the semiotician, only by matching them to the situation, the context, and other variables that characterize human interaction can they be construed as constituting signs of deception…[and] making an accurate conclusion about the truth or falsity of some statement achievable” (32). While it is easy for one to list out the semiotics of deception, the truth is that they need to be taken in conjunction with the context and a multitude of different variables which makes the process of detecting deception and crime itself tremendously difficult. In fact, Vrij highlights how one of the biggest problems with training for lie detection is that there is difficulty in teaching the trainee as to which specific cues that they should be looking out for that are diagnostic as opposed to non-diagnostic (171). This posits one of the challenges with semiotic forensics and highlights an important future direction—the interpretation of signs and semiotics.

The relationship between the signifier and the signified requires such a multidisciplinary approach because not every cue in lie detection is diagnostic and focusing on the non-diagnostic ones may lead the investigator astray. This is further challenged and mediated by the combination of different cues based on different contexts that the investigator needs to address at the same time. Within an interview setting, Carl may have been more effective to catch and detect the lies of Frank because interview settings can introduce different interview styles that elicit different responses from the alleged criminal (Vrij 174). However, this again demonstrates the difficulty for the investigator who is encountering a criminal or interviewing potential witnesses because they are not conducted in such a close environment. The study of forensic semiotics in the second order allows the audience to gain an understanding of such difficulties and perhaps providing motivation in future as to how law enforcement officers could respond more effectively to deception.

The second difficulty of crime detection as highlighted by the film is addressing the social aspects of criminology or the criminal justice system as a whole. The depiction of crime on popular media is one of the main ways of engagement from second order forensic semiotics where it extends beyond just the ontological processes of the detective as had been highlighted by Danesi but also a commentary on the social aspects of the criminal justice system as an important mediator of how criminals are caught (143). This is an extension of how the detective is often seen to be not playing by the rules as they use unorthodox methods to investigate the crime or potentially being in conflict with their superiors (Danesi 143). The conflicts that could be seen in the movie are the loss of confidence from Carl’s superiors as Frank was able to evade capture multiple times over the past few years. While Carl does not entirely use unorthodox methods to try to capture Frank, but he is determined to fly to Europe as well as being portrayed as one of the lead detectives to have caught onto Frank or is more educated than his colleagues in aspects relating to forgery and financial crimes.

However, the more important commentary that is being made by the movie is how there are inherent flaws within the criminal justice system due to the mediation by social and bureaucratic processes. Frank is often portrayed as the outsider compared to his colleagues because his knowledge of financial crimes is more advanced, especially as when his colleague mocks him for spending so much time studying cheques and forgeries. This can be seen when the colleague said “Carl, for those of us who are unfamiliar with bank fraud…You know, you want to talk to my wife, she’s the one balances the checkbooks at our house” (Spielberg 44:30).


  1. Danesi, Marcel. Signs of Crime: Introducing Forensic Semiotics. De Gruyter Mouton, 2014.
  2. Vrij, Aldert. “Why professionals fail to catch liars and how they can improve.” Legal and Criminal Psychology, vol. 9, 2004, pp. 159-181.
  3. Tzanelli, Rodanthi, et al. “’Con Me If You Can’: Exploring Crime in the American Cinematic Imagination.” Theoretical Criminology, vol. 9, no. 1, Feb. 2005, pp. 97–117, doi:10.1177/1362480605048945.
  4. Presser, Lois. “Criminology and the Narrative Turn.” Crime, Media, Culture, vol. 12, no. 2, Aug. 2016, pp. 137–151, doi:10.1177/1741659015626203.
  5. Spielberg, Steven, director. Dicaprio, Leonardo and Tom Hanks, Performer. Catch Me If You Can. DreamWorks Pictures, 2002.
  6. Dooely, Brendan. “The Emergence of Contemporary Criminology: An Oral History of Its Development as an Independent Profession.” Crime, Law and Social Change, vol. 66, no. 4, 2016, 339-357.

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