Double Take



Hitchcock double Zale Kessler (Looking for Alfred, 2005)

Double Take
Narration of the Film by Tom McCarthy

They say that if you meet your double, you should kill him. Or that he will kill you.
I can’t remember which—but the gist of it is that two of you is one too many. By the end of the script, one of you must die.
I have pondered many times, but somehow never understood, the meaning of that fateful encounter one August afternoon in 1962—a story, I was to find out, that was scripted nonetheless by me. I have chewed the details over and over so repeatedly that the memory of it has become inaccurate, like a film scratched and faded by the years. The episode seems too strange to be real. Perhaps it happened, perhaps it still has to happen, perhaps it has never stopped happening.
We had replicated Davidson’s pet shop on a set at Universal Studios in Los Angeles. We were shooting an episode of the type that my audience had already come to expect in each new film: the scene in which I myself make a fleeting appearance. This one had me exiting the shop, my two white terriers Geoffrey and Stanley trotting along the sidewalk in front of me, quite oblivious to the threat massing in the sky above.
I substituted a body-double for myself so that I could oversee a walk-through of the shot. I was about to re-insert myself into the scene when my assistant informed me that I had an urgent phone call waiting for me in the studio offices. Since we were using twelve-minute reels, I’d acquired the habit of measuring time in twelve-minute chunks. So, I called a twelve-minute break.

As I left the set and navigated the studio’s staircases and corridors, I experienced a sense of déjà-vu. It seemed to me that I had created this moment before, in one of my own films. I had indeed walked through this environment several times before, but now it felt different, somehow artificial—as though the entire complex had been replaced by its own replica.

Whereas the security guard always addressed me by name and with a certain reverence, on this occasion, strangely enough, he failed to recognize me. Then, when he did, he gasped:
—“I’m sorry, Mr Hitchcock,” he said; “I thought you’d already gone upstairs.”
—“You were mistaken,” I responded.
—“Yes, perhaps,” he replied. He cocked his head a little, scrutinized my features, then continued: “The other gentleman was older.”
The exchange left me rattled. Yet it was the least of the surprises I would encounter that day.
As I advanced towards my assignation, I felt a deep sense of foreboding—as though I were entering some kind of trap. The sequence of passages that led from the main corridor to the production office was like a labyrinth. I thought I’d navigated it correctly this time; but when I opened the door and stepped into what I expected to be a secretary’s office, I found another scene entirely.
It was as though I’d wandered onto a period set that had been sprung on me unannounced, in a sly act instigated by another mind, another director. In some respects, it was like the tearoom at Chasen’s in Los Angeles. In others, it was like the corresponding salon at Claridge’s back in London. Yet it precisely resembled neither. Its furniture and décor were older, more archaic.
—“This is a prank,” I said. I looked around the tearoom, expecting to find my
Assistant-Director and chief of make-up sniggering behind some column. But they were nowhere to be seen. Beneath an arabesque of cigar-smoke, a shadow lay across the floor. It was the trademark silhouette I’d cultivated in my television programmes. But the shadow wasn’t mine: it fell towards, not away from, me. Its presence made me shudder.

—“Did I frighten you?” a voice asked.

I recognized the voice immediately as my own. Slowly, the figure turned to face me:
—“I’ve been expecting you,” he said.
It was as I had feared. The man, into whose presence I’d been lured by a fictitious phone call resembled me in every way but one: he was, as the security guard had implied, older. As though staring into a dark mirror, I came face to face with myself.
I scrutinized the old man’s face. The features were mine alright: no amount of latex, rubber or make-up could emulate the lifetime of concern stored up in them. The hair was grey, the lines on the forehead and around the eyes sunken and cragged.
—“We have scripted this moment together,” said my alter ego, “in this very room. It was 1962.”
—“But it is 1962,” I told him.
—“For you, maybe. Oddly enough, for me, Alfred Hitchcock, it’s 1980.”
—“You must be mistaken,” I protested, “I am Alfred Hitchcock!”
—“We both are,” he answered.
I felt my own reality slipping away, felt that I risked becoming no more than a character in someone else’s film. I decided to accept the situation and to play along with it, sensing that a failure to do so could prove catastrophic.
—“If you really are me,” I said, “then you will know our secrets.”
—“Test me if you like,” he answered.
I took a step towards him and ordered:
—“Show me your belly button!”
—“Certainly not,” he retorted.
He waved his cigar at the seat in front of him and said:
—“Why don’t you sit down?”
I obliged. A waitress passed by and set down two pots: one tea, one coffee.
—“So tell me,” I asked him, “what was in the kitchen cupboard at our flat in Leytonstone?”

—“You tell me,” he countered.
—“But I want to know if you know.”
—“If I told you what was in the cupboard,” he replied, “I would lie about its nature, just as you would.”
If I had previously harboured any doubts that this man was myself, these words dispelled them. I realized I was playing for my life, and that the next few minutes would be decisive.
I waited for my double to make his next move. He waited for mine, pouring himself coffee from the pot in front of him.
—“When did we acquire the taste for coffee?” I asked, pouring myself tea.
—“One changes one’s habits as necessity dictates,” he answered, smiling

—though the smile seemed to be directed not at me but rather to the blonde waitress, who was staring at us from the far end of the room.
—“I’ll prove things to you,” I suddenly exclaimed, striking off on a new tack; “I’ll tell you things a stranger couldn’t know.”
—“Those proofs of yours would prove nothing,” he replied. “It’s only natural that you know what I know. Each of us needs to believe he alone is the director. Perhaps one day this encounter will play out in one of our films, perhaps it won’t. Though only
one of us will leave this table.”
—“But for now at least, we are two.”
—“Precisely! We have scripted this moment together,” my alter ego repeated. “It was 1962.”
—“No, no, no, it is 1962,” I told him.
—“Certainly not,” he replied. “It’s 1980.”
I feigned a self-assurance I was far from truly feeling:
—“If it is 1980, as you say, you must recall having encountered, back in 1962, an elderly gentleman who told you that he, too, was Hitchcock.”
—“Perhaps the incident was so odd that I made an effort to forget it,” he replied. “Time edits out as much as it records.” He paused for a moment, then continued: “Eventually your fate will become mine; yet, you will have utterly forgotten this curious dialogue taking place in two times and two locations. When it next plays out for you, you’ll be who I am, and you’ll be in my seat. And it won’t be tomorrow either, it will be many years from now.”
—“So tell me then,” I asked, “what’s happened in the last eighteen years of our lives—that is, in your past, which is now my future?”
—“What can I tell you?” he replied. “The misfortunes you are already accustomed to will repeat themselves. You will make the film we dreamed of for so long, but in the end you realize that you have failed. That film was one of the roads that led me to
this night. The others: the humiliation of old age, the conviction of having already lived each day. My words, which are now your present, will one day be but the vaguest memory of a dream…”
—“Your script lacks discipline,” I protested, “I’m sure we will forge a new cinematic language.”

—“In time,” he answered, “you will come to see that cinema merely confirms the old language. If we were successful, this was because we showed people what they recognized of themselves: guilt, desire, anxiety, death, love, guilt, above all guilt.”
—“I wonder if we’ll set this scene to film,” I said.
Equipped, as ever, with that fiendish sense of humour, he responded:
—“Now this, Mr Hitchcock, that is bestowed upon us, our encounter, will be part of a great story, but this is the film you will never make. The world will overtake you. History, sudden catastrophes and global struggles will play themselves out in ways
still stranger and more spectacular than your films.”
—“Tell me another thing,” I said. “Who wins the Cold War?”
He waved away the question, as though it were trivial, then, becoming more animated, sat forward in his chair and told me. “Half the movie theatres in the country have closed down. Television has killed cinema, broken it down into bite-sized chunks and swallowed it, like… like…”
—“Like birds devouring their own parent,” I said.
—“I knew I could trust myself to come up with a good simile,” he chortled. “It is the destiny of every medium to be devoured by its offspring. And we two are not without fault in this: we helped hasten the new format’s rise to power.”
—“Maybe we loved cinema so much we annihilated it,” I ventured.
—“It’s possible,” he concurred. “We always fell in love with our
characters, —that’s why we killed them!”
We lingered for a while on the pleasures of murder. I argued that dying was an act of love, of complete surrender:
—“We always played our crimes as though they were love scenes.”
—“Intimate and domestic,” he murmured in agreement.
“Television brought murder into the American home, where it always belonged.”
He sat his cup down, then said:
—“So, tell me, how would you like to die?”
The question jolted me back to my senses. I looked around for a potential assassin lurking in the salon, but could see no one but
ourselves and the waitress.
—“Come now,” he mocked me. “We have imagined every type of murder, shooting, strangulation, stabbing, being hurled to death from a national monument, marriage—oh, yes, marriage can be very deadly: some of our most exquisite murders have been conjugal, performed in all tenderness with the aid of a kitchen appliance…”
—“Scissors…” I added, “the birds beaks that we’re using in the current picture are like scissors, cutting at people willy-nilly, as they swoop from roofs and phone lines. Death always comes from above.”
—“Above or within,” he corrected me. “Personally, I like poison. It can only be administered to those who trust their killer—their family, spouses, lovers. Murder is a gift, like love. So, tell me, how would you like to die?”
They say that if you meet your double, you should kill him. Or that he will kill you. I can’t remember which—but the gist of it is that two of you is one too many.
—“Who says there’s only two of us?” he added mischievously.
“Maybe there’s three—or four of us. I never felt much for that whodunit sort of thing; I prefer something more devious.” He sat in silence for a while, then continued: “My whole life has been a setting-to-film of this moment. Now, events have caught up with the film, and overrun it. It will end badly for someone. Just as it
did last time.”
I interrupted him: “I know what you’re thinking: it’s the murderer who will tell the story.”
As I spoke the words, fear surged inside my chest, sharp as a knife. It dawned on me that this might be my own death scene playing itself out. I felt a need to assert my existence forcefully. glanced about me for a prop, a weapon.
We could not deceive one another. Each of us was almost a caricature of the other.
—“I hate your face,” I said, “which is a parody of mine. I hate your voice, which is a mockery of mine.”
—“So do I,” he answered, smiling.
This situation could not continue for much longer.
—“I’m not sure,” I said, “if I’m capable of killing you.”
—“You’re capable of killing off your characters,” he answered.
“Treat me as one of those. Try me.”
—“Done,” I said.
—“Done? What do you mean: done?”
—“It won’t be long now. This is your last cup.”
—“Well then,” he said, “let’s get to know each other a bit. Contrary to what you would think from my measurements, I’m not a heavy eater. I’m simply one of those unfortunates who can accidentally swallow a cashew nut and put on thirty pounds right away.”
As he spoke the words a trickle of coffee spilled from the corner of his mouth and ran down his chin before dribbling onto his shirt. The cup slipped from his hand and fell to the carpet. I bent down to pick it up—and saw, when I looked up again, that he
was dead.
I won—or did I? I’ve always missed a part necessary to complete the puzzle. Until today, that is: April the 29th 1980—sitting in a chair on the studio lot, the set of a film that’s ceased to be my own. I’m projected through accelerated time, revolving as
the point of view shifts to the chair. I am here. I was always here.
But who is directing?
My inescapable fate comes back to haunt me. Another man will come, a younger man. Again I will be face to face with myself— only this time I shall be the older one. Beneath an arabesque of smoke, I await him whose arrival will bring my death, listening for his footstep on the carpet. Another killer come, he, who will continue the story.




Inspired by the short story "August 25, 1983" by Jorge Luis Borges.