High Anxiety (1977)
High Anxiety (1977)

Genre: Crime Comedy and Mystery Running Time: 1 hr. 34 min.

Release Date: December 25th, 1977 MPAA Rating: PG

Director: Mel Brooks Actors: Mel Brooks, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, Harvey Korman, Ron Carey, Dick Van Patten, Rudy De Luca

 


 

A

rriving in Los Angeles, Nobel Prize-winning Harvard professor Richard Harpo Thorndyke (Mel Brooks) is perpetually on edge. Every encounter in the airport is uncomfortable and queasy; every person is suspicious or conspicuously unfriendly. And then he meets driver and sidekick Brophy (Ron Carey), a real oddball – from the psychiatric institute that Thorndyke will be taking over as chief – who insists that the former head shrink met with foul play. “What is this all about?”

Although he’s repeatedly warned by other nervous employees, such as Dr. Philip Wentworth (Dick Van Patten), as well as a teacher from long ago now working as a consultant, Professor Lilloman (Howard Morris), the current people in charge dismiss allegations of improprieties. Dr. Charles Montague (Harvey Korman) and his strict, pasty-faced nurse Charlotte Diesel (Cloris Leachman) go to great lengths to conceal not only details about the untimely demise of Richard’s predecessor, but also case histories of various patients, along with questionable financial circumstances and the eerie happenings occurring throughout the facility at ungodly hours. “These things do not let go.”

One might think that spoofing Hitchcock movies wouldn’t be a natural source of significant humor, but “High Anxiety” manages to work in a number of Brooks’ signature bits, while engagingly building a script around parodying the Master of Suspense’s most notable pictures (from “Vertigo” to “North by Northwest” to “Psycho”). And unlike Brooks’ later works, which regularly feature fractured narratives and plenty of departures from the reality of the films themselves, this one actually follows a surprisingly straightforward storyline – even though, on rare occasions, it also breaks the fourth wall in nonsensical manners (and with creative camerawork). There’s time for slapstick and goofy physical sequences, but basically all of the scenes contribute to the main premise; there’s an actual, discernible, prominent plot here.

Primarily, the conspiratorial nature of the premise generates something of a sincere murder/mystery (but not original in any way, borrowing heavily from its sources of inspiration), aided by John Morris’ tense score, which routinely sounds as if from a real thriller. This lends to the unevenness of the laughs; some moments are spontaneously hilarious, interrupting serious speeches with verbal babble, while others go for long stretches without any comic relief at all. A couple of scenes are even unequivocally severe in their depictions of drama and violence – before being punctuated by hilariously ridiculous gags, such as when Thorndyke is attacked by furiously defecating pigeons. Also included is a modest romance with typical Hitchcock blonde Victoria Brisbane (Madeline Kahn), playing the part of the unsure, unsuspecting, yet unusually capable woman. Ultimately, the film isn’t continuously funny, nor is it consistently suspenseful, but it does do a spectacular job of sending up Hitchcock’s classics, even when it’s a little too obvious and easy.

– Mike Massie

  • 6/10