1 November, 2010Issue 14.2Film & TVThe Arts

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Alfred Hitchcock Presents: The Cold War

Amanda Kempa

foerJohan Grimonprez
Double Take
Soda Pictures, 2009
80 minutes

“If you meet your double, you must kill him”, instructs Alfred Hitchcock’s voice at the beginning of Johan Grimonprez’s film Double Take, “…or he will kill you. In the end, one of you must die.” Yet is it in fact Hitchcock who is addressing the audience? And is this really a documentary? The answer to both questions, it is eventually revealed, is no—and yes.

The idea of shifting truths and unstable identities—personal, cinematic, or historical—runs throughout Johan Grimonprez’s quasi-documentary Double Take, which was released this past summer. It is the Belgian gallery artist/academic’s third film, following Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1998), an examination of how air hijackings since the 1970s have shaped the emphasis on panic and paranoia in news reporting today, and Looking for Alfred (2005), a short film about the director’s search for Hitchcock look-alikes (which served as the basis for Double Take).

Grimonprez’s latest work begins as Hitchcock (played by Ron Burrage) leaves the set of his 1963 movie The Birds to take a phone call in his office. Upon entering the room, he finds that he has been lured away from the movie set under false pretenses; it is not a phone call that awaits him, but an older version of himself. Dumbstruck, the director immediately fears for his life and begins to interrogate his doppelganger in an attempt to find an escape from this nightmare. Very quickly it becomes clear that Hitchcock is trapped inside his own very personal version of the “prisoner’s dilemma”. As neither Hitchcock can be sure that one will not try to kill the other in order to regain sole possession of his identity, it is in the best interest of both to strike first. The viewer cannot help but wonder: would this be murder or suicide?

Although the implicit analogy between Hitchcock’s predicament and the Cold War doctrine of nuclear deterrence, or “mutually assured destruction”, may not be immediately apparent to the viewer, in time it becomes explicit. Indeed, throughout the film the existential struggle between the two Hitchcocks serves as a metaphor for the Soviet Union’s and the United States’s political and military brinkmanship. What follows is an extended visual essay in which the enactment of Hitchcock’s surreal crisis, scenes from his movies, newsreel footage of the period between the launch of Sputnik and Cuban missile crisis, and kitschy commercials from the 1950s and 60s colour and interweave with one another. Although at first seemingly disjointed, this associative montage succeeds in conveying a generalized sense of anxiety, paranoia, and fear—precisely the emotions that the Cold War nuclear stalemate elicited.

Yet Grimonprez aims to do more than merely impart a sense of the free-floating anxiety and fear which prevailed during the Cold War and which Hitchcock sublimated so brilliantly in his work. Rather, his project attempts to demonstrate the extent to which that fear was constructed and manipulated by forces such as consumer capitalism and television advertising, leaders in Washington and Moscow, and illusionists like Hitchcock. By laying one of Hitchcock composer Bernard Herman’s haunting scores over a Folgers coffee commercial, for example, Grimonprez illustrates the way the psychological impact of even the most innocuous of events can be shaped by how it is presented aesthetically. Is that innocent looking housewife merely bringing coffee to her husband, or is she…?

This sense of suspense suffuses Double Take with scenes from Hitchcock’s films of the 1950s and 60s appearing beside seminal moments from the Cold War. Images of pigeons with blood-soaked beaks attacking people from above in The Birds are intercut with newsreel footage of the launching of Sputnik, while scenes of Khrushchev speaking with Kennedy during the Vienna Summit in 1961 overlay and strangely echo footage of Khrushchev’s meeting with Nixon years earlier. During this segment Hitchcock’s voice once again intones, “If you meet your double, you must kill him.” By this point in the film, Grimonprez’s thesis is clear: Kennedy and Nixon are in fact doubles, their superficial differences masking the fact that they are doomed to repeat patterns in history that are created, edited, and projected by forces beyond their control.

The director seems to be making the same argument that he presented in his earlier work, Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y: politicians and diplomats may shape public perception, but in the end, it is art and aesthetics that shape politics and history. Indeed, like the Hitchcock films to which it pays homage, Double Take suggests that when it comes to historical memory, nothing is as it first appears; everything is vulnerable to manipulation. At various points the documentary invites the viewer to question even the distinction between East and West, capitalism and communism. One archival segment shows Nixon and Khrushchev sharing an impromptu exchange regarding the merits of their country’s respective domestic wares during the famous “Kitchen Debate” of 1959, while in another commercial-like scene, Castro and Khrushchev sip coffee from delicate china cups as a voice-over proclaims that “Folgers has the richest taste—delicioso!”

Such potentially clunky comparisons only work because Grimonprez rarely forces his point; these ideas are suggested subtly and with humor, often with only Bernard Herman’s beautifully eerie music providing the subtext. No doubt, Hitchcock himself would have been impressed with Grimonprez’s ability to sublimate a message in film. And in fact, the corpulent English director’s presence functions perfectly as the film’s organizing conceit, as no other filmmaker is as closely identified with the themes of doubling, repetition, fear, and the malleability of identity. At their core, Hitchcock’s Notorious, Vertigo, and Marnie are all about protean characters who become whomever they need or desire to be, while the plots of The 39 Steps, The Wrong Man, and North by Northwest each revolve around mistaken identities. Hitchcock’s fascination with doubling and identity is perhaps most evident, however, in Shadow of a Doubt, his personal favorite of all his films. In this 1943 thriller, the two “Charlies”—the innocent niece and her sinister, murderous uncle—are initially set in contrast to one another. But as the film unfolds we discover that, as their shared name suggests, the Charlies are in fact two sides of the same person—doubles who possess the ability to understand and feel each other’s thoughts. It is no wonder that by the end of the film, one of them must die.

The themes of Cold War paranoia, historical memory, nuclear weapons and doubling would have been more than enough to fill Grimonprez’s film. When it begins to explore the idea of the Cold War between movies and television that began in the 1950s and threatened the future of cinema, Double Take starts to feel as though it has reached conceptual overload and has developed too many identities itself. But this is only a minor criticism of a clever, complex, and somewhat dizzying film which would have most certainly intrigued the master of suspense himself.

Amanda Kempa completed a DPhil in history at Hertford College, Oxford. She is currently a visiting scholar at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.