“The doubled Hitchcock mirrors the Hitchcock double, who in turn reflects Hitchcock pretending to play himself.”
The documentary Double Take is bookended by two of the scariest moments in American history: the launch of Sputnik and the release of The Birds. It suggests that these events had a great deal to do with one another. In their collage-essay on the work of Alfred Hitchock and the Cold War, the director, Johan Grimonprez, and his screenwriter, novelist Tom McCarthy, manage to implicate Hitchcock in a number of crimes and misdemeanors, from hawking sub-par coffee to instigating his own murder.
The bulk of Double Take is made up of archival footage, much of it from Hitchcock’s 1950s television show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Television plays a crucial role in the theodicy of Double Take. It represents Hitchcock’s fall from grace, the moment he yielded to the commercialism of the small screen and succumbed to its culture of fear-mongering and domestic paranoia. The rest of the archival footage is assembled along those lines: over-the-top Folger’s Coffee ads, anxious dispatches from the Cuban Missile Crisis, nuclear test blasts, and Communists at play.
Doubling and doppelgangers form the other major preoccupation of Double Take, illustrated with footage of Hitchcock pretending to play himself and an interview with a contemporary Hitchcock impersonator. These Borgesian dream-elements can seem at odds with the more political Cold War material; a fictional story penned by McCarthy, in which Hitchcock meets his double during the filming of Birds and has to ward of his murderous designs, helps to tie them together.
But without a unifying narration, Double Take can feel like a patchwork. It is given its structure by a series of formal rhymes among its elements: satellites over our heads turn into birds in our attic; the coffee advertised in one segment reappears as a murder weapon in another. The doubled Hitchcock mirrors the Hitchcock double, who in turn reflects Hitchcock pretending to play himself.
These associations add up to a fairly sustained, if implicit, argument about media, medium and fear. It runs something like this: Hitchcock, by opting to do television, mass-marketed fear at the same time as Cold War paranoia was reaching its greatest intensity. When he returned to film, his new projects – Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963) – were colored by the crassness of television and the climate of terror it had helped foster. Hitchcock was guilty (metaphorically) of betraying his medium and bringing the world closer to thermonuclear war. A few images from today’s war on terror over the final credits remind us that his (or television’s) baleful impact is still with us today.
That at least is the story told by the assemblage of images. Watching the film, it seemed to me that the footage itself was telling another story. Things that were meant to be menacing seemed benign, even charming. Khrushchev, arguing the merits of washing machines and color TV with Richard Nixon at the kitchen debate looks like Don Rickles as dressed by Colonel Sanders, and seems about as threatening. Imagine how civilized it would feel if we could send Joe Biden to debate women’s wear in an Afghan Cave. There is a whole other documentary waiting to be made out of the footage of Khrushchev frolicking in the snow with Fidel Castro. If the thesis of the movie is that the reality of the East/West conflict was overblown, stoked by the manipulations of the small screen, the footage seems to argue the opposite – the geopolitics were real, but the televised conflict was a fake: a long burlesque act of shaken fingers and bear hugs.
Grimonprez exercises a deft hand in editing the archival footage, which is uniformly compelling, down to the hilarious Folger’s ads in which a series of Don Draperish husbands inspire panic in their wives with their impossible demands for quality instant coffee.
McCarthy’s fictional outing holds up less well, in large part because of his tin ear for Hitchcock’s speech. One of the best things about Alfred Hitchcock Presents was that it provided a showcase for Hitchcock’s Jeevesian wit and gift for comic understatement. McCarthy makes him sound like a Paul Auster novel. After listening to the alt-Hitchcock describe “arabesques of cigar smoke” and complain of feeling “reality slipping away… like I was a character in someone’s film,” I half-expected him to open an unlined journal and stare at its pages in po-faced wonder.
McCarthy’s short story aligns with the rest of Double Take in attempting to portray Hitchcock as a purveyor of existential dread and un-localizable disquiet in the manner of Samuel Beckett or Alain Resnais. Again, this seems to be belied by the footage. In person, Hitchcock comes across as something of a vaudeville ham, while in his films he operated as a master manipulator, but not a terribly subtle one. Hitchcock is often described as treating murder as if it were a love affair; that’s at least in part because he perceived our desire to be scared to be the twin of our desire to be aroused, and both as part of the lewdness of everyday life.
Taken as a serious critique of television and the politics of fear, Double Take can seem facile. As an elaborate post-modern game of quotation and refraction it is more successful, and more enjoyable. But then it pales next to the greatest imaginative re-working of Hitchcock, Peter Greenaway’s The Falls. Now suffering from critical neglect, The Falls took the horror of The Birds and elevated it to the status of myth with its equation of avian catastrophe with the tower of Babel. Double Take doesn’t approach it in suggesting that some events and some fears, like the crows at Bodega Bay, can shatter language.
Double Take may not reach as high, but it does offer ninety minutes in Hitchcock’s company, and a welcome opportunity to revisit A.H. Presents. I still remember the episode in which a housewife kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb, and then feeds it to the detectives sent to question her. At nine, I thought it was the cleverest thing I had ever seen. Twenty years later, I’d rather watch Hitchcock bury the evidence than anyone else dig it up.