Mel Brooks’ 1977 Hitchcock comedy spoof ‘High Anxiety’ is one of the films I watched in my childhood that stands out as one of the most vivid, but not because of the expected comedic reasons.
It has to do with a scene where a person is driving in his car is trapped in it because the door/window handles have been tampered with and he can’t turn off the radio which is playing increasingly loud music; eventually the car crashes and he dies with blood coming from his burst eardrums. Of course now I see it as a comic spoof on a typical Hitchcock setup but back as a kid the scene seriously creeped me out.
I hadn’t watched ‘High Anxiety’ for several decades and it seems to have been largely forgotten except by Brooks fans and completists; certainly it never obtained the reputation that Brooks’ most acclaimed works like The Producers & Young Frankenstein did. My memories of it (car scene aside) was that it was a pretty decent comedy so I was interested to see how it held up after not seeing it for several decades.
The narrative centres around psychiatrist Richard Thorndyke (Mel Brooks) whose career is on the rise (despite a fear of heights) as he about to take over as the head of a prestigious psychiatric facility (called the ‘Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous’!). However it soon becomes clear that the facility is run by corrupt employees (played by Harvey Korman & Cloris Leachman) who are exploiting the patients there and will stop at nothing to prevent Thorndyke from exposing it.
Watching ‘High Anxiety’ after all this years, it generally holds up well. Brooks’ ability to stage gags in his patented brash style was still close to his peak and he makes good use of the many opportunities for Hitchcock homages. The best one is where Thorndyke constant pestering of a deranged bellboy (the film’s co-writer and future director Barry Levinson) leads to an inspired parody of the famous shower scene from ‘Psycho’.
Brooks always enjoyed mocking and undercutting the clichés and conventions of filmmaking whether it be a scene in a car where suspenseful music suddenly is heard and it turns out to be from a nearby bus containing a practising orchestra or a camera zooming into a dinner scene crashing through the window. My favourite one in this film is where the camera is shooting two people having a conversation from below a glass coffee table and it has to constantly move whenever they place cups and containers on different sections of the table so we can still see the people.
The performances are generally fine, with the standout being Cloris Leachman as the devious Nurse Diesel. In a deliciously over-the-top hilarious performance, Leachman is clearly having the time of the life playing the role, especially in how every word she says is enunciated in such a way as if it is chewed and then spat out.
Alas, ‘High Anxiety’ doesn’t quite measure up to the best of Brooks’ films and there are a few reasons for this. The second half falls a bit with several Hitchcock homages (such as a parody of ‘The Birds’ with a bunch of pigeons pooping on Thorndyke) falling flat. The funniest characters in the movie (played by Leachman and Korman) largely disappear from the halfway mark, Madeline Khan’s character is brought in too late so while she does have some bright moments she is somewhat wasted. And there are some later on such as an extended scene with Khan & Brooks pretending to be elderly couple to get through airport security and Brooks singing the title tune that feel a bit self-indulgent.
And while Brooks does a decent job in the lead, it was a role crying out for Gene Wilder. Indeed, Brooks said in an interview many years later that he started taking major acting roles in his films only because his main muse in Gene Wilder stopped appearing in his films to write and direct his own films.
Despite these issues, ‘High Anxiety’ holds up well and was an enjoyable rewatch… even the car scene!