In 1962, while shooting The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock gets a phone call. Or rather, he’s informed of a phone call, but when he makes his way off set he finds not a call but a real live caller, and a thoroughly unexpected one at that: himself, eighteen years older. Beneath this encounter — in a room the London-born, Los Angeles-resident Hitchcock recognizes as a hybrid of Chasen‘s and Claridge‘s — runs a current of existential tension. This owes not just to the imaginable reasons, but also to the fact that both Hitchcocks have heard the same aphorism: “If you meet your double, you should kill him.”
So goes the plot of Johan Grimonprez’s Double Take, or at least that of its fictional scenes. Though feature-length, Double Take would be more accurately considered an “essay film” in the tradition of Orson Welles’ truth-and-falsity-mixing F for Fake. As Every Frame a Painting’s Tony Zhou reveals, Welles’ picture offers a master class in its own form, illustrating the variety of ways cinematic cuts can connect not just events but thoughts, even as it expertly shifts between its parallel (and at first, seemingly unrelated) narratives. Double Take, too, has more than one story to tell: while Hitchcock and his doppelgänger drink tea and coffee, the Cold War reaches its zenith with the Cuban Missile Crisis.
We call Hitchcock “the master of suspense,” but revisiting his filmography exposes his command of a more basic emotion: fear. It was fear, in Double Take‘s conception of history, that became commoditized on an enormous scale in Cold War America: fear of the Communist threat, of course, but also less overtly ideological varieties. Hollywood capitalized on all of them with the aid of talents like Hitchcock’s and technology like the television, whose rise coincided with the embittering of U.S.-Soviet relations. Even for a man of cinema forged in the silent era, the opportunity of a TV series could hardly be rejected — especially if it allowed him to poke fun at the commercial breaks forever quashing his signature suspense.
Alfred Hitchcock Presents, its namesake announced upon its premiere, would commence “bringing murder into the American home, where it has always belonged.” But along with the murder, it smuggled in the work of writers like Ray Bradbury, John Cheever, and Rebecca West. Double Take also comes inspired by literature: “The Other” and “August 25th, 1983,” Jorge Luis Borges’ tales of meeting his own double from another time. Its script was written by Tom McCarthy, whose Remainder appears with Borges’ work on the flowchart of philosophical novels previously featured here on Open Culture. However many different Hitchcocks it shows us, we know there will never truly be another — just as well as we know that we still, in our undiminished desire to be entertained by our own fears, live in Hitchcock’s world.
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.