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Dedicated to “the Master of Suspense Alfred Hitchcock,” “Mel Brooks’s “High Anxiety” (1977) arrived as a polished comedy behind Brooks’s successful preceding spoofs, which included the Western genre (“Blazing Saddles”), James Whale’s “Frankenstein” (“Young Frankenstein”), and silent film comedies (“Silent Movie”). “High Anxeity” marked Brooks’s debut as a producer and his first speaking lead role—Brooks was appropriately tongue-tied in “Silent Movie.”
For the cinematographer responsible for emulating Hitchcock’s gifted director of photography Robert Burks, Brooks used the laudable Paul Lohmann, with whom he worked on “Silent Movie.” Lohmann’s compositional contributions to “High Anxiety” cannot be overstated. From start to finish, everything about the look of “High Anxiety” harkens to Hitchcock’s golden era of Technicolor films. Not-so-subtle visual references evince an amalgam of atmospheres from Hitchcock’s “North By Northwest,” “The Birds,” and most justifiably, “Vertigo.” A clever set piece attraction makes great fun of the unforgettable shower sequence from “Psycho.”
Mel Brooks is no Cary Grant, and he knows it. Purposefully playing against type, Brooks throws down the comic gauntlet as Dr. Richard Thorndyke, a height-fearing psychiatrist called upon to take over as the new head of The Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous. Accompanied by his new assistant and chauffeur Brophy (Ron Carey), the jittery Dr. Thorndyke is greeted at the Northern California cliffside establishment by its devious staff members Dr. Montague (Harvey Korman) and Nurse Charlotte Diesel (Cloris Leachman). Nurse Diesel’s pointy-breasted white uniform and noticeable mustache is a tip-off to her double life as a dominatrix of questionable hygiene to Dr. Montague. “Too much bondage, not enough discipline” is Dr. Montague’s amusing complaint during the couple’s hilariously staged closet spanking session.
As in Hitchcock’s films, murder plays a part in Brooks’s imaginative satire. Blasting rock music from a car radio causes a driver to expire from an ear hemorrhage. Complete with orange-tinted viscous blood, deaths occur with an amount of surprise that belies their comic context.
A speaking engagement before a psychiatric convention in San Francisco demands that Dr. Thorndyke stay at its skyscraper Hyatt Hotel where, despite his requests to the contrary, he’s placed in a room on the top floor. The “high-anxiety”-suffering doctor meets Victoria Brisbane (Madeline Kahn), the wealthy daughter to a peculiar patient at the institute. The couple strikes up a romantic relationship in light of their analogous proclivity for “blowing hot and cold.” Brooks and Kahn effortlessly play off one another to rib-tickling delight.
Mel Brooks’s flair for comic riffing against a stylized background of plot devices draws on a long tradition of spoof movies that date back to the first days of sound cinema. The Marx Brothers’ 1932 parody “Horse Feathers” is a prime example. Mel Brooks paved the way for the genre to be broken wide open three years later with a very special parody film called “Airplane!”
Rated PG. 94 mins.