“Television is like a gun,” Alfred Hitchcock tells us via an archival clip in Johan Grimonprez’s Double Take, providing the viewer with one way of approaching the director’s dense assemblage of Cold War and Hitchcock-related audiovisual artifacts, “your enjoyment depends on which side you’re on.” Certainly the Master of Suspense himself, in the ample clips taken from the introductions and conclusions he recorded for his television anthology Alfred Hitchcock Presents, looks like he’s having a blast, but Richard Nixon, viewed here on the losing end of two televised deliberations, the Kitchen Debate with Khrushchev and the 1960 presidential showdown with Kennedy, seems considerably less comfortable. Still, whatever its direct applicability, Hitch’s quote has a good deal to say about the power inherent in the harnessing of the televisual image, one of the chief themes in Grimonprez’s densely edited, overambitious 80-minute collage.
The Vertigo auteur and the boob tube are just two of the cultural signifiers that the film considers, also offering up a basic Cold War history lesson, a reflection on American consumerism, and a fictional story about doppelgangers. The latter comes courtesy of a Borges story that Grimonprez adapts into a tale about Hitchcock meeting his future self and which muses ponderously on the nature of television, cinema, and duality. Audio and/or visual juxtapositions abound as the director illustrates his story with archival footage of Hitchcock himself, present-day shots of a professional impersonator, and a selection of seemingly incongruous Cold War material. This last group of footage brings out Grimonprez’s tendency toward facile connection, as he attempts to mash together multiple lines of inquiry such as cutting from an audio snatch of Hitch explaining to Truffaut how the word MacGuffin “comes from a conversation between two men” to footage of a different pair of men (Nixon and Khrushchev) conversing.
There’s certainly something valuable to be said about viewing the Cold War-era United States and Soviet Union as essential doppelgangers of each other (as the director’s juxtapositions suggest), while Hitchcock himself was a knowing—and, in his television introductions, knowingly ironic—purveyor of both the sort of terror experienced by the average citizen in the nuclear age and of the consumer culture typified by archival TV spots from the 1950s. But for all that, the connections that Grimonprez makes among his various areas of inquiry seem mightily tenuous, while his insights into the power of then-new media amounts to little beyond the repetition (via intertitle) of the old saw that, during the Kennedy/Nixon debate, radio listeners thought the latter candidate the winner while television viewers reached the opposite conclusion.
There’s no denying the quality of the footage that Grimonprez draws on, as in a series of hilariously sexist ‘50s Folgers ads (“How can such a pretty wife make such bad coffee?”) or the fact that the skillful and repetition-heavy editing of the director and cutters Dieter Diependaele and Tyler Hubby creates a rhythmically satisfying audiovisual artifact of its own. Still, unless you prefer your cinematic collages thematically disconnected, you’re better off taking in Jayne Loader and Kevin and Pierce Rafferty’s nuclear age assemblage The Atomic Café or, better, scouring the TV for old episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, since this is one project that feels as vacant as the amped-up rhetoric employed by both sides during the Cold War era that the film documents with such emptily apparent density.