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Doubles and doppelgangers abound in the films of Alfred Hitchcock, the legendary director who is almost as famous for the self-promoting media image he shaped for himself as he is for his cinematic creations. Double Take, Johan Grimonprez's quasi-experimental meditation on (among other things) the Cold War tension of the late fifties, the space race and the culture of commercial television, turns Hitchcock into the main character of an abstract thriller about the director meeting his own double. Grimonprez "casts" Hitch from his various TV appearances as host of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and master of ceremonies in the trailers to Psycho and especially The Birds, and supplements his archival appearance with look-alike Ron Burrage and voice impersonator Mark Perry. Taking a break from shooting The Birds, this alternate reality Hitchcock is (we are told by Perry in a lazy Hitchcock drawl) confronted with an older version of himself from 1980 and offered sobering (if enigmatic) news from the future.
The film opens with Hitchcock's famous description of the macguffin, a jokey bit that is deconstructed and recreated by Perry in a sequence that takes away all pretense of narrative realism. Grimonprez reveals his tools right from the star, all but announcing that this is a film of creative impressions, manufactured associations and cultural commentary. You could say the Hitchcock himself is the macguffin in this production, which looks at the tensions between the United States as the Soviet Union as a contest for global superiority in a game of image and power played out in televised confrontations (American Vice-President Richard Nixon nervously smiling as Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev ambushes him in the 1959 "kitchen" debate," a public relations opportunity-turned-verbal sparring contest) and intimidating displays of military might (from rocket launches--some them spectacular disasters--to a defiant stand the launched the Cuban Missile Crisis). Grimonprez bounces between TV news footage and the Hitchcock narrative, with breaks for comically dated Folgers coffee commercials and footage of Burrage discussing his career as a Hitchcock double.
The Hitchcock section of this collage film was adapted by Tom McCarthy from a short story by Jorge Luis Borges but it could have been inspired by Hitchcock's own throw-away cameo in The Man Who Knew Too Much, where he offers a double take when (via a clever optical effect) he passes himself on the street. Or any number of gags from his TV show--a triptych of three Hitchcocks competing in a lookalike contest, Hitch in drag, or the opening bit where he's questioned in a police line-up for his activities on television ("My family was hungry," is his excuse for such a crime against art). Hitchcock ruthlessly derided television and commercials throughout his reign as host of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and many of those japes are included here, along with absurd commercials that equate bad coffee with crimes worthy of a Hitchcock film.
All of this makes Double Take more entertaining than enlightening. The suggestion that America and the Soviet Union are Hitchcock doubles on a global scale is clever enough but Grimonprez doesn't take the idea beyond the concept of politics as a sideshow and national posturing as a form of global distraction. Meanwhile, in the margins of the historical record that Grimonprez presents in the form of a public relations contest, Perry narrates Hitch's sobering meeting with his future and Burrage strikes enigmatic poses and takes ominous strolls through a bare studio, capped by a playful look into the camera, acknowledging the pretense while offering a perfectly Hitchcockian wink to the audience. As the threads weave through one another, you can't help but see doubles and doppelgangers everywhere you look--even Khrushchev starts to resemble a Hitchcock double. Politics aside, this often tongue-in-cheek feature is surely the most entertaining experiment in avant-garde impressionist filmmaking you'll have the pleasure of seeing.
Double Take is largely constructed from unrestored archival film and kinescope recordings of television broadcasts so the visual quality is limited to begin with. Kino's disc looks just fine, with the original scenes shot by Grimonprez with actor Ron Burrage sharp and clear and the rest making an aesthetic of the low-fidelity of yesteryear TV. For supplements, the disc offers "The Hitchcock Castings," an impressionist ten-minute montage of audition footage edited into a playfully self-reflexive short, and a 17-minute "Interview with Karen Black," an audio-only interview conducted by director Grimonprez that is ostensibly focused on Black's recollections of Hitchcock during the making of Family Plot but wanders all around the subject.
For more information about Double Take, visit Kino Lorber. To order Double Take, go to TCM Shopping.
by Sean Axmaker