Starring-Mel Brooks, Madeline Kahn
Scott’s Review #740
Reviewed April 11, 2018
For lovers of legendary film director Alfred Hitchcock (as this reviewer is a die-hard fan), the 1977 spoof/satirical feast High Anxiety is a must-see. The film is simply a treat for the multitude (nearly twenty!) of fun references to Hitchcock classics that fans can easily point out. Such classics as 1964’s The Birds, 1945’s Spellbound, 1958’s Vertigo, and 1960’s fan-favorite Psycho are heavily parodied.
Producer, director, and star Mel Brooks abounds all expectations with a brilliant performance and a smattering of veteran Brooks ensemble players along for the ride. Featured stars Madeline Kahn, Harvey Korman, and Cloris Leachman provide wonderful comic performances that are quite lively and memorable without ever being too zany or silly. High Anxiety is a hilarious and clever production.
Brooks plays neurotic Doctor Richard Thorndyke, who has been hired by the Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very Very Nervous. His role is to replace Doctor Ashley, who has died mysteriously at the facility. Transported by his nervous driver, Brophy, he meets a bevy of peculiar characters led by Doctor Charles Montague (Korman), a man with a BDSM fetish, and Nurse Charlotte Diesel (Leachman), the grizzled head nurse. Thorndyke immediately receives death threats amid strange shenanigans seemingly following his every move.
In brilliant fashion Thorndyke suffers from “high anxiety” a witty reference to Hitchcock’s character of Scotty from 1958’s Vertigo. As he meets and falls in love with Victoria Brisbane (Kahn), a woman whose father is a patient at the facility, he becomes determined to prove the fraudulence and deceit of Montague and Diesel, while subsequently clearing himself of a murder charge orchestrated by the pair. The murder scene- occurring in a crowded lobby- with Thorndyke caught red handed holding the murder weapon as a camera snaps the shot for evidence, is a direct spoof of 1959’s North By Northwest.
To be clear, High Anxiety is not a high-brow film nor does it ever dare to take itself too seriously. It knows what it is and what it wants to achieve and that is to both entertain and please fans of Hitchcock. In fact the film is an ode and tribute to the general film-making of the director who reportedly adored the picture and the accolades that Brooks received from making it. There is hardly a better stamp of approval than that.
I adore the casting and the odd characters Brooks writes, specifically Leachman and Korman. The duo ham it up with a script laced with great comic moments for the duo to sink their teeth into. As Leachman, with her drill sergeant-like stiff posture and pointed bosom (Mrs. Danvers from 1940’s Rebecca), combined with the wimpy and snarky mannerisms of Korman’s character, they are the perfect combination of female dominant and male submissive as they play off of one another in crisp style. The sinister way that Nurse Diesel (my favorite character) utters the word “Braces”, a reference to her henchman, drizzles with dark humor and wit.
Piggybacking off of these characters, Dick Van Patten (Eight is Enough) gives a fine turn as the doomed straight man with a conscience, Dr. Wentworth, who just knows something is up at the facility, but is too timid to know exactly what it is. His death scene is one of my favorites as, derived from 1976’s Family Plot, the poor man is driven to ruptured ear drums and a subsequent stroke after his car is rigged to blast rock music, trapping him inside.
Brooks and Kahn make a lovable duo as the beleaguered romantic couple forced into an adventure to prove innocence and rescue Victoria’s father from harm. A favorite moment is Brooks’s wonderful rendition of the song “High Anxiety” at a hotel piano bar as he successfully woos Victoria is an entertaining romantic comedy moment. In predictable fashion- he gets the girl.
High Anxiety is delicious, silly, and peppered with great classic Hitchcock moments that are momentously fun to watch and pick out which movie they each reference is from. An absolute must-see for all Hitchcock fans or those who simply want a humorous, lightweight introduction to the works of the Master.