High Anxiety

I have to begin by saying how excited I was to hear about the “Best Hitchcock Films Hitchcock Never Made” blogathon. Several months ago, I decided to run a series on Mel Brooks, and this is the best kickoff I could have chosen. My many thanks to Dorian and Becky for hosting the “Not-Hitch” celebration!

High Anxiety (1977) was designed to parody suspense film as a genre, but primarily to parody Hitchcock suspense films. Many may recognize the references to Vertigo (1958), which are certainly prevalent, but Brooks wouldn’t be the brilliant filmmaker we know if he had stopped there.

The standard asylum fear: staff trapping patients by convincing others they are crazy. Here, Dr. Montague pretends to become a werewolf.

The setting screams Spellbound (1945), as does the opening premise: Dr. Thorndyke takes over the Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous, a position that the villainous Dr. Montague had expected to receive. The film that ensues is a mishmash of numerous Hitchcock images including imperatives from Psycho (1960), North by Northwest (1959), The Birds (1963), Spellbound, Suspicion‘s (1941) spider web shadow, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1954), and Vertigo (please note: NOT an exhaustive list).  In proper Mel Brooks fashion, the more you know about Hitchcock’s work, the more humor you can find in the film.

Possibly the most obligatory parody in the film: Dr. Thorndyke about to be “stabbed” by a newspaper.

Most of Mel Brooks’ parodies mimic images. What makes this film extra-special, however, is the way he plays with what made Hitchcock such a famous filmmaker: camera angles. Hitchcock is widely considered a filming genius and credited with revolutionizing the use of the camera to create visual effects. Mel Brooks pays close attention to this, and mimics Hitch’s habit. The introduction runs through the airport, following a baggage claim. This preferred pattern would eventually become a favorite of modern film artist Tim Burton.  Later, the film showcases using camera angles by literally placing the camera in random places or, as in my favorite scene, actually creates a mood using the camera angle.

The gate to the institute: Please note the sign “keep in.”

One of my favorite scenes in the film involves Dr. Montague and Nurse Diesel, portrayed by two frequent Mel Brooks compatriots: Harvey Korman and the incredible Cloris Leachman. Nurse Diesel (yes, that’s Nurse Ratched from 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and not even subtle), the true evil mastermind, explains the plot to Dr. Montague during an afternoon tea. The camera, however, sits below the glass-topped coffee table. The camera allows the audience to “spy” on the plotters, who unwittingly block the camera repeatedly as they go about having their tea. The comedy of the moment is brilliant, drawing the audience into the role of spy, albeit a spy constantly frustrated by carafes and saucers (and eventually completely blocked by a tray). Brooks creates one of his best parodies here by comedically accomplishing the very thing that makes Hitchcock so masterful: using perspective to create or change the role of his audience.

“Vertigo” and the blonde bombshell …

What also makes this film special is that Mel Brooks stars in the movie himself. Like Hitchcock, he typically has a character role or cameo in his films. Oddly, in his film pertaining to Hitchcock, he steps out and stars in his own picture. It is not the first or certainly the only movie where he does so, but it is his first with a speaking role (he stars also in 1976’s Silent Movie). However, in proper Hitchcock fashion, Mel Brooks hired a “blonde” to play the lead hysterical female role–Madeline Kahn. The in-the-film-blonde Kahn takes her role quite seriously, basically encompassing every suspense/Hitchcock bombshell all in one character (and let’s face it, no one in Mel Brooks’ arsenal, or possibly in the world, can do pitchy hysteria quite the way she can.).

Cloris Leachman is masterful as Nurse Diesel

The acting in this film is excellent overall, and no suspense is worth anything unless the villain in compelling. Harvey Korman is excellent as the rather disturbed puppet front man. Cloris Leachman’s performance as the horrifying Nurse Diesel is nothing short of a statement. Her verbal cues and posture communicate everything about her commanding strictness, and she creates a delightfully bizarre, blocked speech by clenching her teeth and only talking out of one side of her mouth. Just as Hitchcock worked hard to give the audience important signals of impending danger, she’s a caricature of held-back, hidden villainy.

This post could probably continue forever with parody mentions, pointing our references, or discussing the brilliance of the performances, but there has to be at least a little suspense left for the film …

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12 thoughts on “High Anxiety

  1. “No one in Mel Brooks’ arsenal, or possibly in the world, can do pitchy hysteria quite the way [Madeline Kahn] can.” Never a truer word spoken! I love that she and her car match outfits.
    Very enjoyable post!

  2. Carrie, you’re a gal after my own heart with your love of both Hitchcock and Mel Brooks! HIGH ANXIETY has long been one of Team Bartilucci’s favorite movies, and your affection for for it shows. Brooks has always said that he knew when his genre parody scripts (usually done as a team, like Brooks used to do with his fellow writers when he first worked on TV’s YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS) had been successful because they’d create a solid genre script first, and then weave the jokes in. If the finished script was still a riveting story when they gave the draft a run-through WITHOUT the jokes, that’s when they knew they’d been successful! BRAVA, Carrie, because your wonderful post is a big success, too! Now I feel like kicking back and watching my HIGH ANXIETY DVD again for the fun of it! 🙂 Thanks a million for helping to make our Blogathon such a success with the help of your great post, Carrie!

    • Thanks for hosting! It was a lot of fun to post- and thanks for the extra trivia! That’s fun to know. Congratulations on a great blogathon- you collected some terrific posts!

  3. One of my favorite scenes is the busload of musicians. I’d never seen that before so not only was it hysterically funny it was inventive as well. A surprise and then you’re howling with laughter. I love that sort of thing. It kind of sets the tone for the rest of the movie far as I’m concerned.

    Thanks for a terrific overview of one of Mel Brooks’ best parodies. I love Harvey Korman and Cloris Leachman together in lust and villainy. HA!

  4. I’ve said it many times – the key to making a perfect spoof, is to take all the jokes out of the script, and re-read it. Presuming the jokes you had were good, if what’s left is still a solid example of the genre being spoofed, it’s going to do well. Brooks is responsible for three out of the five best spoofs of all time; this, Young Frankenstein, and Blazing Saddles. Under everybody’s noses, he delivers a solid thriller in between all the laughing.

    Having long time Hitch collaborator Albert Whitlock do the special effects (not to mention get a cameo as Arthur Brisbane (the industrialist?) is just the kind of detail that puts the cherry on top of a fine confection.

  5. I really enjoyed your write-up, Carrie — so much so that I think I will check this movie out, although I never previously had a desire to do so. I remember when it came out, and can clearly recall hearing Mel Brooks’s voice on the previews on TV singing, “High Anxiety . . . you WIN!” (I never knew what that meant). I’m sure that I also never knew that High Anxiety was a send-up of Hitchcock movies! Great job!

  6. Thanks for the comments, all! I couldn’t agree more with each of you. Definitely give this one a try, Shadows- I wasn’t sure at first, but I love Mel Brooks, so I had relented. I’m glad I did. They worked hard on the details in this film, as you can see from the other comments.

  7. Perfect choice! When the genius of suspense meets the genius of hilarity it’s got to be great. I bow to both Mel and Sir Alfred. Great post.

  8. Just watched HA again, Just as good as the first time. The entire cast of the movie is great, but Harvey Korman really makes the movie, for me. His scene with Cloris in the armoire (“Too much bondage, too much bondage..”) and the “Psycho” shower scene (That kid gets no tip!) are my favorites. I actually got to stay in the Hyatt Regency several years ago. Being a fan of the movie, it was quite a treat.

    • Thanks for the comment, Ken! Harvey Korman really sells his character in this film, which is part of what makes Nurse Diesel feel so conniving. I love how he can be the “bad guy” or the one completely out of control. I also loved the “Psycho” shower scene. The ink going down the drain was pure genius that never would have occurred to me. That’s awesome about the Hyatt… I may have to give it a try someday.
      Cheers!

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