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High Anxiety

High Anxiety – 1977
A Psycho-Comedy
Mel Brooks

Mel Brooks (screenplay) &
Ron Clark (screenplay) &
Rudy De Luca (screenplay) (as Rudy DeLuca) &
Barry Levinson (screenplay)

Mel Brooks producer

Mel Brooks – Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke
Madeline Kahn – Victoria Brisbane
Cloris Leachman – Nurse Charlotte Diesel
Harvey Korman – Dr. Charles Montague
Ron Carey – Brophy
Howard Morris – Professor Lilloman
Dick Van Patten – Dr. Philip Wentworth
Jack Riley – Desk Clerk at Hyatt Regency
Charlie Callas – Cocker Spaniel
Ron Clark – Zachary Cartwright III
Rudy De Luca – Braces (as Rudy DeLuca)
Barry Levinson – Dennis the Bellboy
Lee Delano – Norton
Richard Stahl – Dr. Baxter
Darrell Zwerling – Dr. Eckhardt

Review by Bill Slocum

Brooks Comedy With A Hitch

Forget Spielberg or Lucas: In 1977, the most eagerly anticipated film in the house I grew up in was the latest from Mel Brooks. This was the guy who transformed neighing horses and baked beans into comedy gold. Now he was taking on Hitchcock. So what if that silent thing he did the year before went nowhere? This was going to be good.

And “High Anxiety” is good, sort of, sometimes. A Nobel laureate psychiatrist, one Richard Harpo Thorndyke, shows up at a mental hospital “for the very, VERY nervous” and soon realizes Nurse Diesel’s rigid fruit-cup policy is the least of his staff’s issues. Attending a convention in San Francisco, he finds himself wanted for a brutal killing, and with the help of a strange woman who doesn’t believe her father is a cocker spaniel, he goes back to the hospital, and his own childhood, to conquer his lifelong fear of heights.
There’s a lot of Hitchcock references in “High Anxiety,” beginning with an unnecessary dedication to “the master of suspense.” The takeoff on “The Birds,” a pigeon attack where Thorndyke gets the newly-washed-car treatment, works best, though most of the Hitchcock bits have a kind of inert, pasted-on quality that detract from the movie.

The real challenge Brooks gave himself, and was seriously hobbled by, was in his choice of lead actor: Himself. Brooks is very funny in films when he has some small part, like “The Gov” in “Blazing Saddles.” But here you are stuck with him walking through hallways, getting in and out of cars, talking to other characters, i.e. advancing the plot, and it’s a great demonstration for anyone who thinks screen presence comes easy. Brooks can mug, but he can’t act, and his joke-free scenes (of which there are too many here) have the same awkward quality of watching your nine-year-old nephew’s violin recital.

At least he calls on some of his old friends, like Cloris Leachman as Diesel and Harvey Korman as her boy-toy, both of whom are sure laugh-getters. No one makes answering the phone as funny as Madeline Kahn, whose entrance parodying Lucie Mannheim’s in “The 39 Steps” is one of Brooks’ most effective and subtle nods at Hitchcock’s direction.

“High Anxiety” works best when it’s not referencing Hitchcock, like when Thorndyke finds himself called on to sing a song at a hotel bar and turns into Sinatra. That’s an influential scene in its own right, referenced in “Anchorman,” and it is not only funny but showcases a cool title song. Brooks uses his microphone chord as a whip and counsels his audience in mid-chorus to “be good to your parents, they’ve been good to you.”

“High Anxiety” is funny like that off and on, sometimes for five whole minutes at a stretch. But there’s too many awkward pauses and some key missteps, like when Brooks and Kahn jump out of character to do an old Jewish couple bit or when Dick Van Patten as one of the hospital staff dies from a serious attack of AM radio. The film also feels like a comedown in the way its shot, which is not with that visually dramatic style Hitchcock perfected but more like a “Love Boat” episode. Given how right Brooks gets tone in his earlier directorial efforts, you really miss it here.

Back in 1977, my father and I walked out of the theater agreeing “High Anxiety” was okay, but nothing special. That still sounds about right. Brooks could have done better; unfortunately, as he soon proved, he could also do worse.

Review by Zetes

High Anxiety (1977)

The worst possible outcome of a decent concept,

Mel Brooks has had his stinkers, some much worse than this (Dracula: Dead and Loving it being by far his lowest point), but this came at the end of an era of great comedic successes for him. It’s only four years after Young Frankenstein, for instance, which is one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen. And the concept of this film, a spoof of Hitchcock films, seems like gold.

There’s more than a dozen well known films and a hundred well known sequences that Brooks could have parodied. For some reason, he forgets to do it through a good 75% of the film, only parodying Vertigo, Psycho, the Birds, and Marnie with one or two throw-aways to North by Northwest. They are all from late Hitchcock, and the only one I may be missing is the Jimmy Stewart version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, probably the only major Hitch film I haven’t seen. But these films are only mentioned a little, besides Vertigo, which is, more or less, the basis for 90% of all the parody. There’s a take off of Psycho’s shower scene, some pigeons poo on Brooks, and there is a flashback near the end that seems to be parodying Marnie.

None of those parodies work. Almost none of the rest of the jokes work, either. Cloris Leachman is the only person on screen who ever gets a single laugh, as Nurse Diesel, the wack-job, manly, conniving, dominatrix, but she’s trying so hard that she only managed to make me laugh a couple of times. I don’t even know what Madelaine Kahn is doing here, although the phone booth/obscene phone call scene was one of the couple of scenes that made me laugh. I hope Hitchcock never actually saw this. I wouldn’t be so mean as to call it an insult to his films, but it certainly stands as a major embarrassment to Mel Brooks who can’t even demonstrate in his direction that he understands WHY Alfred Hitchcock is “the master of suspense,” as he calls him in the kindly dedication. 5/10.

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70s Films

A tour through the great and not so great films of the seventies The seventies saw a huge change in styles and genres from the advent of the slasher horror movies like Halloween and the blockbuster summers films started by Jaws. More...

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