HIGH ANXIETY, 1977
Directed by Mel Brooks
Starring: Mel Brooks, Madeline Kahn, and Harvey Korman
Review by Mark Engberg
A demented hospital staff in this classic parody of Alfred Hitchcock’s suspenseful classics threatens a renowned psychiatrist suffering from vertigo mental illness.
After tackling the traditional Western, the classic horror epic, and even the pioneer style of the silent movie, Mel Brooks takes on the most ostentatious of Hollywood entities: Alfred Hitchcock. This is a movie that not only suggests but demands familiarity with Hitchcock’s reputation as the master of suspense in order to get the better half of the jokes.
In traditional Mel Brooks style, the comedy is delivered without subtlety. In fact, he crams the references in your face like it was a pie from an abusive waiter. Or a bellboy (who gets no tip).
While the level of wit can be described as sophomoric, it must also be acknowledged that Mr. Brooks surpassed all level of expectation in this project mimicking the great works of Mr. Hitchcock: “The Birds”, “North by Northwest”, and of course “Vertigo”. Roger Ebert disapproved of Brooks’ satirization here, stating that Hitchcock classics were already full of wit and that a slapstick farce mocking the director’s style of storytelling was inadequate and heedless.
Mr. Ebert may have a point regarding Brooks’ simplistic style of principal shooting. Honestly, did the man ever study three-point lighting? Or how to eliminate a boom mike shadow from a reflecting angle? If not for Brooks’ impeccable sense of timing and unconquered comedy, his production would seem amateur and somewhat unnatural.
But given Mel Brooks’ pampered edge of such a heralded style and his respectful style of soft-core mockery, I must disagree with Mr. Ebert and his speculation of improper irony. Who better to challenge the Master of Suspense than the Master of Farce?
Instead of appearing as a cameo, as Hitchcock did in every one of his own classics, Brooks takes the center stage as the star lead in his sixth directed feature. While some may complain about the director’s preference for his own performed comedy, you have to admire the man’s ability to sculpt his own comedic invention into actual product. Mel Brooks is one of the few filmmakers from Hollywood who can be credited, or blamed, as the writer, director, and star of his own celebrated comedy.
Even though his lounge act performance of “High Anxiety” is badly lip-synced, it is obvious that this man is an extremely talented performer, capable of great physical comedy as well as insight. True, his films may have a production value comparable to art house theatre rather than cinema. But his sense of humor appeals to audiences of all ages, which today is an infrequent occurrence for a live action comedy.
Jaded from his harrowing airline flight, Dr. Richard Thorndyke (Brooks) arrives to assume control of the Institute for the Very, Very Nervous. Harvey Korman resumes his role as a spineless villain with many of the same traits he exposed in “Blazing Saddles”. His character, Dr. Montague, is hip deep in devilish conspiracy with Nurse Diesel. Cloris Leachman plays the demented villainess with such grace, her slurred speech and tightened jaw actually frightened the hell out of me when I first viewed this picture as a young boy. Her Cruella de Vil-like interpretation of Ken Kesey’s Nurse Ratched is a hallmark in comedic performance.
Montague and Diesel are bloodthirsty with deception. They plan to eliminate Thorndyke and run the institute as a prison ground for mental patients. Their imprisonment of a famous industrialist incurs the concerned reaction from his daughter, Victoria Brisbane (Madeline Kahn in yet another scene-stealing performance). Her best scene in this movie is a phone call from Thorndyke while a professional killer is strangling him. Except she thinks it’s a heavy breather. You have to see it to believe it.
As Thorndyke and Victoria join forces, their quest enables a frantic chase sequence, which pits our vertigo-challenged hero against a climactic backdrop of heights and bad men who have only half a mustache. I could explain, but why ruin it?
Howard Morris adds genuine warmth to the story as Thorndyke’s mentor, Professor Lilloman (pronounced “Li’l Ol’ Man”). As he nurtures Thorndyke out of his acrophobia, he supplies many laughs as temperamental comic relief. Comic rule #87: Old Jewish doctor types who swear loudly= huge laughs.
Also, watch for the scene where the bellboy attacks Thorndyke in the shower of his San Francisco hotel. While it may be clear that Brooks is spoofing “Psycho” in this shot-by-shot send-up, it took me repeated viewings until I finally recognized the actor playing the bellboy: none other than Barry Levinson, who co-wrote the screenplay with Mr. Brooks. After “High Anxiety”, Levinson would go on to direct his own immortal comedies such as “Good Morning Vietnam” and “Rain Man”.
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