Film Review: Double Take

Johan Grimonprez sure knows his Hitchcock! <i>Double Take</i> is a dazzling and dizzying avant-garde documentary homage&#8212;and then some.

In Double Take, Belgian director and media artist Johan Grimonprez takes bits and pieces of Hitchcock films--and the Hitchcock legend--and scatters them against the backdrop of the Cold War, the era when “The Master of Suspense” was at his most prominent in the public consciousness.

Much more than a survey of a filmmaker’s canon, Double Take probes the self-reflexive hall of mirrors that was essential Hitchcock and relates it to issues of war and peace. Hitchcock buffs alone should make this an indie hit, though others might be confused by the postmodern assemblage.

While playfully weaving together clips and audio, Grimonprez also introduces us to two individuals involved in continuing the Hitchcock mystique: Ron Burrage, a Hitchcock impersonator, and Mark Perry, a Hitchcock vocal double. Throughout Double Take, we are treated to Burrage and Perry’s work, although mixed in with the “real” Hitchcock voice and image to a point where we are not always sure who we are hearing or seeing (or even what year we are in—1962 or 1980). And that is part of the game of this film—particularly since Hitchcock himself enjoyed fooling his audiences in a variety of ways, including undercutting generic expectations.

Grimonprez juxtaposes footage from 1950s newsreels and short subjects about Cold War annihilation with Hitchcock’s brand of pop-culture terror (using his TV series and “late” features, including Psycho and The Birds, to maximum effect). There are several vintage Folgers Coffee commercials (the official sponsor of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”) that are made ominous either by having Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho themes (reworked by composer Christian Halten) accompany the seemingly benign, through glaringly sexist, domestic moments or by following them with newly shot “recreations” of the poisoned coffee scenes from Hitchcock’s spy films Notorious and Topaz. There’s also footage of Nixon and Khrushchev debating communism, Nixon and Kennedy debating space exploration, other world leaders grinning at or kissing each other, commercials for color TV sets, rocket liftoffs, and A-bomb mushroom clouds.

About midway through this mélange, we hear Hitchcock’s observation (or is it Perry speaking?) that “the misfortunes you are already accustomed to will repeat time, you will come to see that cinema merely confirms the old language. If we were successful, this is because we showed people what they recognize of themselves—guilt, desire, anxiety, love, death, guilt, above all guilt.” Whether this is Hitchcock or Grimonprez’s way of saying cinema often reinvents the wheel, they are both also saying what we don’t learn from history, we are condemned to repeat. And so the film’s title gains an even more cryptic meaning than what we first might have assumed. Such Cold War texts as The Birds and Topaz seem more profound and prophetic than ever and, at the climax, a fascinating and little-known connection between Hitchcock and Kennedy is revealed. A classic nonsense quote from Donald Rumsfeld, uttered during the Iraq invasion, caps the film, appropriately.

Surely, Grimonprez could have limited his re-ordering and repetition to Hitchcock bits alone and would have had a YouTube classic (or something akin to his 2005 collage-film, Looking for Alfred). But Double Take is much more than this—something like a contemporary version of A Movie (1958), Bruce Conner’s beautiful and groundbreaking meditation on movie-watching and the human condition.