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High Anxiety

Mel Brooks was a standup comic, a TV writer, and a Broadway playwright before he became a movie director in his early forties, a ripe old age for a filmmaking debut. High Anxiety (1977), the first movie he produced as well as directed, co-wrote, and starred in, follows the pattern that had served him well in most of his five previous pictures and would remain a trademark in years to come: it's a movie about movies, a show about show business.

It's also a mixture of parody, satire, and slapstick in which Brooks twists tried-and-true conventions of popular entertainment into pretzel-like new shapes that are comfortingly familiar and uproariously unfamiliar at the same time. Like all his pictures, it's a hit-or-miss affair, sometimes reaching high hilarity, other times plummeting like the proverbial lead balloon. The only sure thing is that you'll enjoy it most if you're acquainted with the works of Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense to whom Brooks dedicates the movie.

The basic setup of High Anxiety echoes Spellbound, the classic psychological thriller that Hitchcock made in 1945 with Ingrid Bergman as a psychoanalyst, Leo G. Carroll as a chief psychiatrist being pushed into retirement, and Gregory Peck as an amnesia patient posing as an eminent psychiatrist he may have murdered. Spellbound takes place at a mental hospital called Green Manors, however, while High Anxiety unfolds largely at the Psychoneurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous, where the physicians and nurses are very, very crazy.

We meet the main character, Nobel Prize-winning psychiatrist Richard Thorndyke (Brooks), when he arrives at the institute to become its head after the mysterious death of the former director. His new colleagues include Dr. Montague (Harvey Korman), a shifty physician who thinks he should be the new chief; Prof. Lilloman (Howard Morris), who was once Thorndyke's mentor; and Nurse Diesel (Cloris Leachman), a control freak who deserves the Nobel Prize for nastiness. Also in the picture are Thorndyke's bumbling chauffeur, Brophy (Ron Carey), and two healthy patients held against their will because they can afford to pay and pay: Zachary Cartwright (Ron Clark), whose neck pains and werewolf fears are artificially induced, and Arthur Brisbane (Charlie Callas), who thinks he's a cocker spaniel.

How will Dr. Thorndyke handle this loony gang? First he'll have to conquer his own psychological weakness - a dreaded condition called high anxiety, which makes him very, very panicky whenever he's far above the ground, whether in a glass-walled elevator or an upper-story hotel room. This aspect of the movie comes from Hitchcock's 1958 Vertigo, starring James Stewart as a detective whose acrophobia kicks in during a rooftop chase, paralyzing him with terror and touching off a murder scheme. The climax of High Anxiety is the climax of Vertigo as it would look in a funhouse mirror. You could almost take it seriously, except that Brooks is no Jimmy Stewart, and his hysterical comic acting doesn't let you forget this for an instant.

Spellbound and Vertigo aren't the only Hitchcock films to get blitzed by Brooks's satire. There's a reprise of the shower scene in Psycho (1960) with a bellhop replacing the killer and a newspaper replacing the knife. The heroine of The Birds (1963) undergoes horrible bird attacks, and the hero of High Anxiety undergoes horrible bird droppings. The name Richard Thorndyke recalls Roger Thornhill of North by Northwest (1959), and a slaying staged in a crowded lobby resembles that thriller's amazing United Nations murder. There's a touch of Marnie (1964) in a flashback revealing the source of Thorndyke's high anxiety, and a hotel reservation is surreptitiously altered - changing his room from the third floor (low and safe) to the seventeenth floor (high and scary!) - by a Mr. MacGuffin, named after Hitchcock's word for a plot device that has no purpose except to keep the characters hopping through the story. Keep your eyes open for other references as you watch.

Brooks is an equal-opportunity satirist, so non-Hitchcock movies also get dragooned into High Anxiety. A goofy nod to The Wizard of Oz (1939) sneaks into the vertiginous climax. A killer disguised as Thorndyke is exposed when Brophy enlarges a photo negative, as in Michelangelo Antonioni's 1966 Blow-Up, and the killer's metal-covered teeth must have been suggested by Jaws, the James Bond character who first appeared in The Spy Who Loved Me, released a few months months before High Anxiety. Mentions of new drapes at the institute remind me of The Cobweb, a 1955 Vincente Minnelli picture also set in a mental-health clinic. When Dr. Thorndyke sings the title song ("High anxiety, whenever you're near...High anxiety, it's you that I fear...") in a ritzy nightclub, Brooks is lampooning every too-smooth crooner who ever slowed the pace of a Hollywood drama. And did I mention that Thorndyke's middle name is Harpo?

High Anxiety gets its comic energy largely from the actors, some of whom have multiple Brooks films among their credits: Leachman as the sadistic Nurse Diesel, Korman as the evil Dr. Montague, and Dick Van Patten as the semi-sympathetic Dr. Wentworth, who gets murdered by loud rock'n'roll that makes his ears bleed. Special honors go to Morris, a longtime Brooks associate who puts every muscle of his face and body into his portrayal of Professor Lilloman, who does not like his name pronounced "little-old-man" even though he is a little old man. Barry Levinson, one of the scriptwriters and the future director of movies like Rain Man (1988) and Wag the Dog (1997), plays the newspaper-wielding bellhop. And another Brooks favorite, Madeline Kahn, is great as Thorndyke's love interest, although not even she can salvage the scene where she and Brooks do a Borscht Belt-type dialect routine to divert attention at an airport. They think they're only pretending to be "loud and annoying," but that's exactly what they are.

I find the airport scene strenuously unfunny, but you may laugh until, well, your ears bleed. As everyone knows, humor is very, very personal. And as everyone also knows, this movie's actor-director-writer-producer is not to everyone's taste; among the great Jewish-American comic filmmakers, I'll take Woody Allen or Albert Brooks over Mel Brooks any day.

As a movie lover, though, I like Brooks's habit of poking fun at other movies - westerns in 1974's Blazing Saddles, horror pictures in 1974's Young Frankenstein, silent movies in 1976's Silent Movie, and so on - and his acting makes up in lunacy what it lacks in finesse. So give your brain a night off, brush up on your Hitchcock, and settle in for a potpourri of laughs, groans, dull spots, and inspired spots. The picture is often rude and crude, but hey, low comedy is better than high anxiety!

Director: Mel Brooks
Producer: Mel Brooks
Screenplay: Mel Brooks, Ron Clark, Rudy DeLuca, Barry Levinson
Cinematographer: Paul Lohmann
Film Editing: John C. Howard
Production Design: Peter Wooley
Music: John Morris
With: Mel Brooks (Dr. Richard Thorndyke), Madeline Kahn (Victoria Brisbane), Cloris Leachman (Nurse Diesel), Harvey Korman (Dr. Charles Montague), Ron Carey (Brophy), Howard Morris (Prof. Lilloman), Dick Van Patten (Dr. Wentworth), Jack Riley (desk clerk), Charlie Callas (Arthur Brisbane), Ron Clark (Zachary Cartwright), Rudy DeLuca (killer), Barry Levinson (bellhop)
Color-94m.

by David Sterritt

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