This piece was written in response To:

Looking for Alfred

by Johan Grimonprez

This film was screened on White Screen in full throughout December 2015. A clip of the work is available to view on the FILM AND VIDEO UMBRELLA website here.

Film courtesy the artist and Film and Video Umbrella

The Trouble with Doubles

Alfred Hitchcock made more cameo appearances than any other director in history: thirty-nine, to be exact. Why? If not to play a scripted, speaking part, why does a director pass in front of his camera?


François Truffaut asked Hitchcock this (or thereabouts) in his book-length interview with the director, Hitchcock, first published in 1967. What compelled the director to step inside the action of The Lodger (1927), Truffaut asked his idol? ‘Did you do it as a gag? Was it superstition? Or was it simply that there weren’t enough extras?’ Hitchcock responds straightforwardly, or so it seems at first: ‘It was strictly utilitarian; we had to fill the screen. Later on it became a superstition and eventually a gag.’ Looking again, however, there’s something suspect, glib, in the arc of his answer. More than this, Hitchcock appears to mock his interlocutor, repeating back his three-part question in reverse. Hitchcock was a prankster, so if he meant to smother the subject of his customary walk-on, this were precisely the way he’d go about it. (A mistake, maybe, to give so shifty an interviewee so many options.) So one feels inclined to distrust Hitchcock’s response, which – even if honest – doesn’t say much of why he wanted to be in his films. And undoubtedly he wanted; Hitchcock wasn’t in the habit of doing anything he didn’t want to do.


The consensus is that Hitchcock’s cameos were ‘a symbol of authorship’ – as film critic David Parkinson wrote in the Guardian – like ‘Grinling Gibbons’s peapods’ or, for that matter, British furniture maker Robert Thompson’s signature mice. Like a seal-die onto wax, Hitchcock pressed his physical person into his pictures. Every cameo, an embossment, authenticated the film as his. Each film made more familiar the director’s silhouette, the contours of his profile: the nose like a wedge, the deep perpendicular of his upper lip, the soft convex of his chin.


It’s a persuasive hypothesis: the cameo as maker’s mark. It fits with the auteur’s self-image, one he promulgated even before he began working with sound. In January 1928, Cassell’s Magazine of Fiction published his essay ‘An Autocrat in the Film Studio’, in which Hitchcock argued the absolute jurisdiction of the director. ‘He is the autocrat of the studio,’ he wrote, ‘and he has got to be’ [his italics]. The article followed another entitled ‘One Man Pictures’, and a third, still earlier, called ‘Films We Could Make’. This last maintained ‘that when moving pictures are really artistic they will be created entirely by one man.’ We have it from the horse’s mouth: Hitchcock set store by his singularity. In fact, he insisted on it. And his cameos, regularising his persona, singularise his work.


But there’s a paradox to Hitchcock’s appearances. On the one hand, they underscore his autonomy; on the other, they multiply his person. In the world of his films, there is not one Hitchcock, but thirty-nine – and these near-forty facsimiles walk his body of work.


This fact cannot have escaped the director; a man determined to bring into tidy synthesis his self and his work. How did it sit with him? Uncomfortably, I think. Perhaps the real question is: can the director’s preoccupation with cementing his identity be independent of his morbid fascination with doubles? Themes of doubling and mistaken identity recur throughout his oeuvre; they are the seeds of fear and intrigue in Strangers on a Train (1951), Vertigo (1958) and North by Northwest (1959), to name a few.


But none of these movies explores the doppelgänger quite so exhaustively as Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Hitchcock’s first American film, its action unfolds in the small-town of Santa Rosa, where the boredom of first-born teenager Charlie is relieved upon arrival of her East-Coast namesake Uncle Charlie, her mother’s youngest brother. Unbeknownst to his California family, this Charlie is a widow-killer in hiding.


Charlie and Charlie are two sides of the same coin. She’s the first to say so, older than when they last met and keen they should discuss it: ‘we’re not just an uncle and a niece. It’s something else–.’ They’ve a connection. ‘I know you,’ she says, ‘I know that you don’t tell people a lot of things. I don’t either.’


Uncle Charlie humours the girl; it suits him that he’s high in her affections. Later, when she’s led to suspect his being the ‘Merry Widow Murderer’, he invokes their likeness to buy her silence and keep her from blowing his cover: ‘Why, we’re old friends. More than that: we’re like twins. You said so yourself.’ Where the young Charlie had called them ‘alike’ and telepathically ‘in tune’ – ‘across thousands of miles [a] person knows what you’re thinking about and answers you, and it’s all mental,’ she explains to the postmistress on receipt of her uncle’s wire, announcing his impending visit – her uncle goes one further: ‘The same blood flows through our veins, Charlie.’ The ambivalence of this assertion touches a nerve with the girl. Does he mean to say the very same blood, or only that they are family?


Increasingly persuaded of her uncle’s guilt, putting two and two together, Charlie begins to resent their semblance, which ­– cruelly – asserts itself the more the more she grows to hate him. It creeps into her speech, as when she warns that if he won’t leave town, she’ll have to murder him: ‘I’ll kill you myself.’ The propinquity of ‘you’ and ‘myself’ portends the danger to Charlie should her doppelgänger die. To disengage the part of her that mirrors him and vice-versa would be to lose a large part of herself. It would be like letting blood; she would be wan without him.


This is the bind of the film’s title. ‘Shadow’ and ‘doubt’ share the same root in ‘twoness’. To doubt is to be of two minds. A shadow doubles one’s body. They are mirror-words. And just as two negatives make a positive, they seem to neutralise each other. The one cancels the other, and the outcome is oblivion.


This would not be a Hitchcock film if its themes weren’t concretised in costume. Young Charlie wears a white dress with a gingham collar and gingham paneled sides. The fly-front of her blouse solicits the eye to bisect her; cut her down the middle. So doing, we see that she is perfectly symmetrical; each half of her complements the other. She is a wholesome person; sound, in spite of present conflict. We know she’ll do right in the end. The plain-clothes detective, a decent, honourable man of equilibrium, wears a double-breasted suit; buttons on both sides. Uncle Charlie, however, wears a buttonhole. He is off-centre; his left side offsets the right. As Hitchcock once remarked to critic Richard Schickel, ‘evil is complete disorder,’ and Charlie is visibly disarranged. He’s at odds, untrustworthy, and his two ill-suited sides make him an enemy unto himself.


Charlie’s sartorial asymmetry is especially unfortunate, since he shares with Hitchcock a yearning for unanimity. When his sister Emma makes to show him a photograph of his younger self, he contends, ‘I tell you there are none!’ It’s a matter of life or death for Charlie that he remain the only version of himself, his sole representation. In response to being shown the photograph (it does indeed exist), he declares, ‘What’s the use of looking backward? What’s the use of looking ahead? Today’s the thing – that’s my philosophy.’ The past, after all, gives rise to retrospect: altered, oblique, plural perspective. No –Charlie would have the level present. He cannot live with polysemy; he won’t stand for it.


He is rather like Hitchcock in this respect. Speaking at the American Film Institute in 1979, James Stewart paid tribute to his four-time director: ‘When you work with Hitch, you don’t try doing a scene two ways. You do it one way: his.’ Possibly, Hitchcock’s itching to be univocal was aggravated by the necessity to collaborate – with the actors he called ‘cattle’ and with a crew. Hitchcock worked with many people and those he favoured he stuck with: they knew his mind. Cinematographer Jack E. Cox shot six of Hitchcock’s silents; composer Bernard Herrmann scored seven of his thrillers; Saul Bass designed the title sequences of Vertigo, Psycho and North by Northwest; costume designer Edith Head worked on a total eleven films; writer Ben Hecht was ‘a good professional’; and few storylines escaped shaping by Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reville.


Working within this network did not threaten the director’s absolutism. He was the white light passed through a prism, they its dispersed colours. They helped him furnish the worlds of his films; to ‘fill the whole tapestry’, as he told Truffaut.


This desire to ‘fill’ – with rich, visual detail – Hitchcock saw as the difference between the filmmaker who had worked prior to the advent of sound and the hapless filmmaker who missed out on this education. It is also the biggest clue to what’s behind the Hitchcock cameo. If these worlds were to be real – and this was Hitchcock’s mission, such that he had cloud formations created of spun glass to pass over a model skyline in Rope (1948), and stagehands to position them as continuity dictatedhad Hitchcock not to be in them? What real world that he knew did not have Alfred Hitchcock in it? His fifty-three films were of him; did he wish to be of them, too?


And is this what he meant by ‘superstition’? Were he to be resurrected into the next-world of his films, he should want to be re-embodied as himself. If not a matter of life or death, then it was a matter of death and after-life that he appear, materially, in his movies.


As to why he would invite the proliferation, the fissuring forty-ways, of his image – why loose into a different dimension those thirty-nine Hitchcock clones – one suspects his motivation was as that of the millions who paid to be spooked by his pictures. The man who delighted in frightening the masses, the ‘master of suspense’, must surely have been susceptible to the same temptation: to reach out a hand to the thing he feared most, and look his double dead in the eye.


is a film critic. She writes for the British Film Institute’s international magazine Sight & Sound, the BFI online, and bimonthly film journal Little White Lies.


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