Published on September 15th, 2014 | by Clint Davis
High Anxiety 
Summary: A subtler Mel Brooks picture, with jokes that sneak up on you. Here he again shows his love for old cinema, paying tribute to Hitchcock and the Marx Brothers. Not the laugh riot of 'Blazing Saddles' or 'Young Frankenstein,' but still very funny and well directed. As usual, Harvey Korman steals every scene he's in.
PG | 94 min.
Director: Mel Brooks
Screenplay: Mel Brooks, Ron Clark, Rudy De Luca, Barry Levinson
Starring: Mel Brooks, Harvey Korman, Madeline Kahn
Distribution: 20th Century Fox
U.S. Box Office: $31,063,038
In 1970s comedy cinema, there were three classes: Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and everybody else.
Things changed in the 1980s when John Landis and Harold Ramis really sunk their teeth in, but from 1974 to 1979, comedies were simply not as funny or well crafted as when Brooks or Allen’s names were attached.
After winning an Oscar for the screenplay of 1968’s The Producers, which was about as edgy as any farce seen on the big screen in that day, Brooks went on to direct Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein in 1974 — and if BOTH of those pictures aren’t in your top 20 favorite comedies then you haven’t seen them.
The thrill of watching a Brooks production is that he keeps you guessing. This is one of the most experimental directors we’ve ever seen and it’s because, frankly, he has balls of solid steel. As a director, he’s also a favorite of mine because he constantly pays homage to the great film genres of Hollywood history.
Those three pictures I mentioned are categorized as a musical, western and monster movie, respectively. How much more nostalgic for old days of Tinseltown can you get? Keeping with that tradition, Brooks followed his back-to-back 1974 masterpieces with a silent movie, aptly titled Silent Movie. In all of these pictures, Brooks simultaneously rips the cliches of these antiquated genres apart while also showing his unquestionable love for them.
In 1977, Brooks tipped his hat to Alfred Hitchcock with the low-key thriller-comedy High Anxiety.
Unlike modern parody flicks like Not Another Teen Movie or the Scary Movie franchise, High Anxiety pays respect to the films it’s lampooning, rather than simply pointing its finger at their tired practices. The movie’s opening titles state: “This film is dedicated to the Master of Suspense Alfred Hitchcock.”
The countless gags in High Anxiety work because Hitchcock’s style was so iconic, not because he relied on the same gimmicks — as many modern horror directors have. This movie wouldn’t be funny if Hitchcock’s movies sucked, in fact it works because the exact opposite is true.
In this film, Brooks brings back many of his favorite actors to fill out the cast. Much like he did in Blazing Saddles, Harvey Korman plays the heavy, Madeline Kahn is the love interest and Cloris Leachman returns as a villainous frau. Brooks plays the film’s leading role himself, a well-respected psychologist that suffers from a crippling fear of heights—rather than “vertigo” his affliction is known here as “high anxiety.”
Dr. Richard Thorndyke (Brooks) takes over as head of California’s Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous. Resident shrink Dr. Montague (Korman) and his domineering lover Nurse Diesel (Leachman) concoct a plot to snuff Thorndyke for some reason that escapes me right now but ultimately isn’t really relevant. Thorndyke slowly discovers the plot with help from his chauffeur/sidekick Brophy (Ron Carey) and lover Veronica (Kahn).
Brooks has never been known as a master of sublety — most of his jokes smack you right in the teeth — but in High Anxiety, the laughs are more sneaky than slapstick. There are a number of brilliant gags that use only the camera to earn the payoff, such as when the main characters are gathered for a dinner party. We’re outside the hospital’s grand dining room and the party is visible through a window, cinematographer Paul Lohmann’s camera slowly creeps toward the window pane but moves too close and shatters the glass. The characters simply put down their forks and look suspiciously toward the audience. It’s brilliant and one of the best laughs in the film.
Jokes like this are what put High Anxiety among the best of Brooks’s canon. He spends a lot of time in this movie disrobing filmmaking tropes like the use of over-dramatic music — which he lambasts in an early scene.
Brophy is driving Thorndyke to the facility, when he leans back from the driver’s seat and informs Thorndyke his predecessor was likely murdered. Just then, a tense orchestral number builds up and we realize it’s being played by the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra, which passes by in a charter bus while practicing.
Also Brooks’s character is purely a straight lead, whose normalcy is always in contrast with the goofy supporting cast around him. Much like Sheriff Bart and the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles, Thorndyke and Veronica seem to be the only people in this movie’s entire universe that are in on the joke.
Now don’t get me wrong, High Anxiety is still full of farcical off-color moments. In the film’s first five minutes, Thorndyke is pulled into an airport bathroom by a man dressed as security — only to find out he’s an effeminate homosexual offering him a tryst. “You’re not a cop?,” Thorndyke asks. “They wouldn’t take me!”
There are many nods to Hitchcock’s greatest hits — especially Vertigo and The Birds — but you don’t need to have seen a single one of his pictures to enjoy High Anxiety. I only noticed two scenes in the film that existed for no other reason than to parody specific Hitchcock moments.
In one nod to The Birds, Thorndyke is chased by a group of pigeons that are all shitting on him and in an over-the-top sendup of Psycho’s shower scene, he is attacked with a newspaper by an eager bellhop (played by a young Barry Levinson, who would go on to direct greats like Rain Man and Wag the Dog).
The pacing of High Anxiety does sag a bit, especially whenever Harvey Korman isn’t onscreen. He’s such a comic natural, in the vein of Ted Knight — Korman manages to steal every scene he’s part of. Leachman’s performance tested my patience because of its cartoonish quality. Her accent just sounds cliche and forced; her entire character doesn’t add to the movie.
It’s a shame that Madeline Kahn doesn’t show up until halfway into the film but she reenergizes the audience immediately. Her chameleon looks this time have her playing the blonde Kim Novak type — a character Thorndyke sets out only to help but is quickly drawn closer to.
The laughs in High Anxiety don’t come in bucket loads, but when they do it’s likely you’ll be snorting. The film’s plot gets very interesting for the third act, leading to a more traditional conclusion than Blazing Saddles, in case you were wondering where this was headed.
This is further evidence of the brilliance of Mel Brooks as a pure directing talent. High Anxiety is nowhere near as fresh as Young Frankenstein or Spaceballs but it’s shot like a first-rate thriller and features some very smart, subtle bits — often with the punchline not paying off until a couple scenes later.
Hitchcock was able to see the movie before his death and apparently sent Brooks a case of vintage wine as a sign of good faith. It’s a damn shame the 88-year-old legend hasn’t directed a movie since 1995 but here’s hoping he’s got one more punch to throw at Hollywood before it’s over.