Johan Grimonprez’s Double Take is an ambitious essay-film, examining Cold War paranoia through the prism of Alfred Hitchcock’s films and TV shows from the late ’50s to the mid ’60s. With no narration (outside of vintage radio broadcasts and some recitations by a Hitchcock impersonator) and very few on-screen titles, Double Take relies heavily on old news footage and Hitchcock promotional appearances, mixed in with some new day-in-the-life scenes featuring a man who looks a lot like Hitchcock. Grimonprez’s associations are loose, but clear. He’s illustrating how Hitchcock fed on—and fed—the atmosphere of suspicion and anxiety as Eisenhower gave way to Kennedy and the arms race escalated. He’s also showing how in terms of rhetoric, the opposing sides of the Cold War weren’t so different.
Grimonprez adds to the theme of doubling by having his Hitchcock impersonator read from a Tom McCarthy adaptation of a Jorge Luis Borges short story about a young man confronting his older self. But by that point, Double Take hits conceptual overload. The movie’s themes repeat as it moves from one historical period to the next, but they never deepen. Grimonprez just keeps juxtaposing amusing and/or unsettling old movie and TV clips, only to ring the same bells over and over.
Granted, there’s considerable entertainment value in watching footage of Nikita Khrushchev acting like a kooky uncle in front of American television cameras, or listening to Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy debate whether America’s failures in the space race diminish its standing as a superpower, or hearing one of Bernard Herrmann’s nerve-jangling Hitchcock scores under a commercial for Folgers Coffee. By contrasting Hitchcock’s explanation of “The MacGuffin” with TV commercials and old arguments over who’s winning the Cold War, Grimonprez makes a case for how historical events can be driven by threats more perceived than actual. But given that he illustrates that point again and again, any 15-minute stretch of Double Take proves as enlightening as any other—more like a museum installation than a movie.