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Somewhere in Belgian artist Johan Grimonprez’s film - a vast montage of Hitchcock’s television appearances, Cold War footage and coffee commercials - is an adaptation of a Jorge Luis Borges story by art world luminary and novelist Tom McCarthy. Borges described meeting his younger self in ‘The Other’ and returned to the idea in ‘August 25, 1983’. Here it is Alfred Hitchcock who meets the 1980s version of himself during the filming of The Birds in 1962, which leads him to plan the perfect murder. ‘If you meet your double, you should kill him, or he will kill you,’ one tells the other.
This war between doubles is mirrored in the cultural tensions of the late 50s and early 60s. In the dialectic battle for supremacy we have: communism v capitalism, television v cinema and instant v ground (coffee that is). Hitchcock is an odd (but somehow perfect) choice around whom to build such a film - a seeming mass of contradictions who fails to add his weight decisively to either side of any argument. To him the Cold War was a handy plot device, a MacGuffin. Soviet agents, like the Nazi spies in Notorious (1946), or even the birds in The Birds, were simply the faceless danger to set the plot in motion. In the latter film, the apocalyptic fear of the Cuban Missile Crisis is stripped of any political content and turned into an animal class war (aves v mammalia). And yet, in contrast to the rest of Hitchcock’s oeuvre, it is a film that seems to invite allegorical readings. Is mankind’s faltering position at the top of the evolutionary tree a reflection of the Red Peril or perhaps even of cinema’s battle for the biggest share of the market place with television (that smaller, less intelligent but more numerous and successful upstart)? Among the highlights in Double Take is some excellent footage of Vice-President Richard Nixon defending his country in a ‘good-humoured’ debate with First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev: we may be losing the space race, he argues, but we have colour television.
Although it would take some years before television began to gain artistic credibility, the small screen was by the early 60s commercially (in America at least) whooping ass. And with the advent of colour it must have seemed that cinema’s days were numbered. Although Hitchcock appears to sneer at the new technology - there is a great joke about adverts being specially placed throughout the programme to stop the audience from getting too involved - he was, as always, adaptable - after all, he had already made the move to sound, to colour, to widescreen and even shot Dial M for Murder (1954) in 3D. And with Alfred Hitchcock Presents and its follow-up The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (the hilarious intros from these make up the bulk of Hitchcock’s appearances in this film), he became for a while more famous, certainly more recognisable, as a television host than as a director of films.
It seems that in Double Take Grimonprez is not really interested in Alfred Hitchcock the artist - there is no mention of voyeurism or the manipulation of the audience that dominate other studies. The Master of Suspense is reduced to a figure of his time - as much a 2D representation as the famous line drawing from his TV show. And yet this is somehow refreshing. Perhaps because he is ‘cinema’s greatest artist’, his art has dominated discussions and the socio-political context of his films has been often overlooked. This may also be because Hitchcock himself was as disdainful of when and where his films were set as he was of the plausibility of his plots. And yet he was forever setting his films amid contemporary political turmoil; the Cold War itself serves as background for both Torn Curtain (1966) and Topaz (1969).
It must also be said that Double Take is a very entertaining film and is at times very funny - aside from the Hitchcock intros, there is also the strange comedy double act of Nixon and Khrushchev. The pleasures the film offers are perhaps not unlike those of an ‘I love 1962’ compilation, but at the same time it is intelligent and complex with enough layers of reality to rival the Curb Your Enthusiasm ‘Seinfeld’ episode; we see the actor and Dead Ringers star Mark Perry practising Hitchcock’s voice and reading from Truffaut’s interview book (based on recordings made in 1962) and celebrity look-alike Ron Burrage, who shares a birthday with the filmmaker, posing with Tippi Hedren.
For those who need reminding of history’s relevance to the present we also have the true story of a plane crashing into the Empire State Building in 1945, among other references to 9/11. But such forced links are hardly necessary; we still have a capitalism v (Chinese) communism conflict; television and cinema are now both fighting a battle with newer media; but Folger’s ground coffee is still a bestseller stateside and, ‘as good as fresh perked’ or not, the instant variety remains as popular as instant tea in Britain. Perhaps what is genuine and authentic will prevail if only we can recognise it.
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