A curious and unconventional art film, Double Take is for the most part an engrossing and intriguing oddity. It’s comprised almost entirely of archival footage, blending documentary with an imagined Hitchcock suspense thriller, only with the unusual twist that the great director himself takes the lead role. The premise runs thus: it’s 1962, and on the set of The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock is surprised to find his exact double, albeit twenty years older, confronting him with a decidedly Hitchcockian doppelganger dilemma. “If you meet your double,” claims the double, “you should kill him. Or he will kill you. Two of you is one two many.”
With a smart combination of original footage from Hitchcock’s television shows, a team of body double actors – most notably regular Hitch lookalike Ron Burrage – and a brooding voiceover from Dead Ringers impressionist Mark Perry, the deftly executed ‘post-modern Hitchcock’ story strand generally succeeds in drawing you in. But director Johan Grimonprez is an artist first and director second; his earlier effort, Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, was a video installation at Tate Britain. This ain’t accessible popcorn fare, and the press pack’s synopsis seems slightly misleading – the doppelganger encounter is a small story thinly stretched out throughout the entire film, with more weight, and certainly more screentime, given to examining and documenting the political situation of the era.
Double Take is as much, if not more, a Cold War documentary as it is a noir thriller, and in this aspect it’s extremely effective. Grimonprez juxtaposes and directly compares the Hitchcock plot with the major events of the US/Soviet space race, beginning with Nixon and Kruschev’s infamous ‘Kitchen debate’ in 1959, through to the Bay of Pigs crisis, and the Kennedy assassination. There’s no talking heads or vox pops, and voiceover is devoted to the fictional side of things, so this is stripped down montage documentary, using only newsreels and television footage from the time, relying entirely on ominous title cards and thoughtful editing choices.
In addition to all this, we are constantly reminded that the fiction we’re watching is exactly that, and so there are constant and very postmodern references to the making of the film itself. One of the first things we see is Perry listening to a tape of Hitchcock speak and copying his speech patterns, and there are frequent appearances of lookalike Burrage, recounting tales of being mistaken for his double, making public appearances as his double, and years previously working at the Savoy – Hitchcock’s favourite London hotel.
All this amounts to a curious mix of fiction and nonfiction which won’t be to everyone’s taste. It clocks in at a thrifty 80 minutes, referencing the Hitchcock quote that “the length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder”, a quote that appears on a title card towards the end. But for some it might seem too long. It’s certainly engrossing, and Christian Halten’s foreboding soundtrack works wonders evoking Bernard Hermann’s tense, brooding strings, maintaining the mood throughout. Yet the various themes and motifs, intelligently executed though they are, might serve only to alienate all but the arthouse-iest of audiences.
Fascinating, if not exactly entertaining, Double Take is a brave and unusual experiment in film that generally works. It’s gripping and clever, and there are very smart ideas being put forward. Just don’t expect an average Hitchock thriller.