1.5/4, 1970s, Alfred Hitchcock, Comedy, Mel Brooks, Review

High Anxiety

High Anxiety (1977) - IMDb

#12 in my ranking of Mel Brooks’ filmography.

I think it’s pretty obvious that Mel Brooks loved the work of Alfred Hitchcock. I do not think he really understood it, though. I disagree with some contemporary reviewers who said that it was simply impossible to satirize or make a parody of Hitchcock films because of their self-aware senses of humor (which they generally do have). I think Brooks simply made a fairly unfunny film that also would happen to have been a mundane Hitchcock film if he had made it. There’s plenty of stuff to poke fun of in Hitchcock’s work, but Brooks misses it all for most of the film.

Dr. Richard Thorndyke (Brooks) arrives in California from Massachusetts to take the lead post at the Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous, greeted at the airport by Brophy (Ron Carey), his driver and an avid photographer who implies that Thorndyke’s predecessor was murdered. When Thorndyke gets to the Institute, he’s greeted by Dr. Charles Montague (Harvey Korman) and Nurse Diesel (Cloris Leachman), and a lot of the issues with the film start here. The plot of Montague and Diesel, having murdered Thorndyke’s predecessor and with plans to kill Thorndyke should he get too close to the truth, is obvious from the start, and the movie has no idea how to build tension around it. This is the uncomfortable alliance between Hitchcockian suspense and Brooksian humor that the film represents. It doesn’t help that so many of the jokes in this area fall flat.

The single biggest disappointment in this film is probably Cloris Leachman. Having grown up on Malcolm in the Middle and Young Frankenstein, I’ve always known her to be a very funny comedian, but her role here as Nurse Diesel is awful. It’s affectation looking for a joke as she snarls with a slight mustache, pronounced and pointy breasts, and a weird sado-masochistic relationship with Dr. Montague. None of it is funny, but it’s easy to imagine how it seemed that way in concept. However, it’s made all the worse in the fact that the first forty-five minutes is dedicated to the institute itself, and the institute is a combination of flat, tension-free dramatics and unfunny attempts at humor.

It’s not completely devoid of humor, just mostly, but there are random moments here and there that work, like the characters hearing dramatic music at important moments and reacting to it. The movie doesn’t really feel like it begins to move until the halfway point when Dr. Thorndyke leaves the institute for San Francisco to attend a conference. Where the first half is a drag, the second half is mildly amusing, cranking up the Hitchcock mimicry to the point where it ends up feeling like a Hitchcock themed sketch show.

Thorndyke finally meets the blonde of the movie, Victoria Brisbane (Madeline Kahn), whose father, Arthur Brisbane (Albert J. Whitlock), is a patient at the institute against his will, she asserts. There is also a killer, Braces (Rudy De Luca), calling back to Dr. Montague and asking for instructions on how to deal with Thorndyke which ends up being Braces wearing a Thorndyke mask and killing a fellow doctor at the conference, an act that Brophy photographs. Ah, more than halfway through the film, we get our Wrong Man plot. However, because it took forever to get to and we know exactly the who and the why, the effort to replicate the machinations of a Hitchcockian thriller fall apart before they ever get assembled. All we’re left with are the Hitchcockian references, then, and most of those tend to be of the level of a Saturday Night Live sketch.

The Psycho moment is of an angry bellboy (Barry Levinson) finding the newspaper that Thorndyke had requested and then stabbing him with it through the shower curtain in Thorndyke’s hotel room. The North by Northwest moment is mostly the killing captured by a camera. The moment from The Birds is Thorndyke calling from a payphone and then being pooped on by a cadre of birds after they rest on a playground set reminiscent of one seen in the original film. The Vertigo moment is a chase up a tower for…reasons, mostly being that it can be a moment to recall Vertigo and fulfil the wane promise of the film’s title, another way to say vertigo. The moments are amusing and little else.

The funniest moments tend to be removed from the more obvious parodic elements. There’s Thorndyke giving a talk about certain psychological ideas that he has to censor with childish words for genitalia because one psychologist needed to bring his two young daughters. It’s amusing. There’s another moment where Nurse Diesel and Dr. Montague are going over the events at the hotel, filmed from below a glass table where the camera has to constantly move back and forth as the characters place plates and cups blocking the camera’s view. It may be the only visually stylistic bit of parody in the whole film. I swear…in a movie parodying Hitchcock, one which plays on the idea of Vertigo, not once is the push in, zoom out trick used at all, much less taken to the extremes of parodic or satirical levels.

And that, I think, points to how Brooks simply missed the mark in the film. It’s not that Hitchcock is above parody. I think he’s ripe for it. The near obsession with Freudian psychoanalysis and easy psychological explanations (like in Psycho and Marnie), the visual trademarks, the wrong man element, and far more are sitting there in Hitchcock’s work, waiting for someone to come along and twist them to comedic ends more obvious and outrageous than Hitchcock took them in his own work. Brooks seems to have approached the idea like a sketch show writer would have if given a week to come up with something to fill five minutes of screentime.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call the film bad, but its satirical intent is way off from its execution. Brooks didn’t seem to know how to make fun of Hitchcock’s work in a way that would actually sting. Instead, he ends up falling into mimicry with mixed results. The larger sin is the first half, though, where the film alternates between dragging and being not particularly funny for long stretches. On the whole, there’s some light entertainment to be had, especially on the back end, but Brooks missed the mark overall.

Rating: 1.5/4

8 thoughts on “High Anxiety”

  1. Eh, it’s amusing. As you know, Brooks and Hitchcock met to discuss various possible gags, so it may be that Brooks didn’t want to go too far and offend Hitchcock. But the title song is pretty cool.

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  2. Mel Brooks is not Zucker/Abraham/Zucker.
    Honestly, I just want him to be more Mel and Less ZAZ, as you said this doesn’t work as a parody or a comedy.

    I think it comes down to the writing but in this case it also comes down to the characters. All the best Mel Brooks movies have characters that are likable and we get to know them. The humor arises naturally out of these characters and the things that go wrong for them. High Anxiety doesn’t do that, neither does the Silent Movie. His successful movies do

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    1. Yeah, this is why I wish Brooks had continued on a different route after The Twelve Chairs. I love both Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, but the model that formed the rest of his career was something he wasn’t really great at. He’s not a gag-a-second kind of comedian. He was a storyteller with a wonderful sense of humor who got shoehorned into the gag-a-minute racket, and he met so much success with it for so long that it seems like he forgot everything else.

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